My newsletter last week about illiberalism on the political right led to claims, in the Twittersphere and elsewhere, that I was engaging in “whataboutism” or “both-sides-ism,” perhaps even seeking absolution from the woke left by pointing to examples of censorship on the right.
I’ve often had a similar sense of whataboutism when it comes to the discussion of racial preferences in college admissions, the subject of my other newsletterlast week. Often, calls to eliminate these racial preferences — as mine was — are met with objections asking, “What about?” universities that maintain preferences primarily benefiting white students, notably in the form of legacy admissions.
Under these, children of alumni get special consideration for admission. According to one report, in 2019, nearly half of colleges factored legacy into freshman admissions. This already dubious practice is compounded when universities cater to financial donors, often white, in admissions decisions.
And its effect is no more a mere “thumb on the scale” than that of racial preferences. Consider Harvard: A 2019 paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that “Over 43 percent of white admits are ALDC” — athletes, legacies, “dean’s interest” and children of faculty and staff — “compared to less than 16 percent of admits for each of the other three major racial/ethnic groups” and that around three-quarters of them would not have been admitted otherwise. And as The Times reported in 2018, a federal lawsuit revealed emails between Harvard’s dean of admissions and university fund-raisers “suggesting special consideration for the offspring of big donors, those who have ‘already committed to a building’ or have ‘an art collection which could conceivably come our way.’”
Legacy preferences are, more or less, affirmative action for white kids.
So, my answer to the whataboutism of using legacy preferences as a defense of or at least a rebuttal to questioning race-based preferences is: Legacy preferences should go as well. Of course. Elite schools such as Amherst College and Johns Hopkins University have ended the practice. A 2020 statement from John Pérez, then the chair of the University of California Board of Regents, read, “Per long-established U.C. Regents policy, U.C. forbids legacy admissions and does not grant preferential admission to the children of alumni or donors.” A blunt stand-alone statement on the admissions website at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reads: “M.I.T. doesn’t consider legacy or alumni relations in our admissions process. If you’d like to read more about this policy, check out the blog Just to Be Clear: We Don’t Do Legacy.”
These schools are on the right track. There should be neither preferences for well-to-do white students nor preferences for well-off students of color — even those we might describe as merely upper middle class, such as my own children — but instead, preferences for students of poor or working-class backgrounds, irrespective of race.
Yet the question might be, “Why not stress that point?” since people contesting racial preferences often don’t.
Perhaps some suppose that someone who contests racial preferences without concurrently objecting to legacy preferences is turning a willful blind eye, eager to let white people off the hook. But this rather hastily casts the opponent of racial preferences as someone of bad faith.
And we must ever beware the idea that people we disagree with on societal issues are either ignorant or sinister. For example, some argue, intuitively, that legacy preferences are necessary to maintain alumni donations. But in a chapterof “Affirmative Action for The Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions,” researchers came to the conclusion that “there is no statistically significant evidence of a causal relationship between legacy preference policies and total alumni giving among top universities.”
My own lack of emphasis on legacy preferences over the years has essentially been an example of how hard it can be to get out of your own head. Quite simply, I have tended to think of legacy preferences as something of an embarrassment to the university system, and as such, have assumed that any other Black observer speaking on the issue would be as disinclined as I am to suggest something along the lines of: “What’s wrong with affirmative action for Black students when there’s affirmative action for rich white ones?”
That is, however, the kind of argument I have often perceived. For example, in the aughts, not uncommonly during panel discussions and talks on the pros and cons of racial preferences (of which I have participated in quite a few) people would often parry criticisms of racial preferences by tartly noting that President George W. Bush had been a modestly performing legacy student at Yale. It was almost always a guaranteed applause line — white audience members would make that point with especial élan, if memory serves.
I found it ironic, to say the least, to see white progressives earnestly supposing that they were doing the right thing by implying that Black students should found any part of their self-estimation on pointing to the apparently subpar scholastic performance of our 43rd president. It was an example of what one might call unintentionally woke racism or, as Bush himself phrased it more than two decades ago in a speech to the N.A.A.C.P., “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
And I found it sad that Black people in agreement with those white observers were missing that, in favor of a claim that boils down to something approximating the adage “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” That sort of approach strikes me as the antithesis of Black pride. The issue here is not just a matter of who gets certain resources, as in, who gets a goody bag and who doesn’t. It’s about perception as well. Black students often complain about the assumption that they are affirmative action admittees, with consequences ranging from constantly being on the defensive in late-night dorm-room debates to being shunned as study partners. Racial preferences in admissions inevitably reflect on Black students — Black people — as a whole. However unfair it may be, legacy admissions do not reflect on white students or white people, broadly speaking, in the same way.
Zora Neale Hurston, of “Their Eyes Were Watching God” renown, who left us 62 years ago last week, and who today would be considered a Black conservative, had useful words for these issues. Though she didn’t live long enough to comment directly on affirmative action, we can glean what her thoughts would have been in many of her statements, such as this one:
It seems to me that if I say a whole system must be upset for me to win, I am saying that I cannot sit in the game, and that safer rules must be made to give me a chance. I repudiate that. If others are in there, deal me a hand and let me see what I can make of it, even though I know some in there are dealing from the bottom and cheating like hell in other ways.
Hurston questioned the supposedly progressive notion that the job of an enlightened Black person is to question the basis of the rules — or, in the case of the legacy admissions comparison, to point out when the rules aren’t applied completely fairly — rather than to grapple with the rules and only contest them after we have shown that we can make our way despite double standards and “gotchas” baked into the system. Opinions will differ as to what justifies petitioning for the rules to be changed, and how much, but Hurston’s counsel is an invaluable lodestar for us moderns, regardless.
Many seem to find a particular resonance in the core concerns, reflected in the titles, of books such as “When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America,” by the Columbia political scientist Ira Katznelson, and the aforementioned “Affirmative Action for the Rich,” edited by the lawyer Richard Kahlenberg, who’s written extensively about class-based affirmative action, including for The Times. Both books are excellent, but people have a way of taking the concept of white affirmative action as implying that its existence, and for so very long, deep-sixes anyone questioning racial preference policies of a mere few decades’ duration.
That’s an oversimplified take, though, ignoring reasoned addresses of racial preferences from many quarters. My position on racial preferences in 2022 (as opposed to 1962) stands. But if, somehow, it wasn’t clear, I look forward, also, to seeing legacy preferences melt away just as soon.
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John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He hosts the podcast “Lexicon Valley” and is the author, most recently, of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”
You can view this piece in The New York Times here.