With Prop 16 officially on the November ballot, affirmative action is once again in the headlines.
When we talk about affirmative action in higher education today, we often talk about it narrowly in the context of explicitly race-based programs benefiting Black and Latinx applicants. However, there are myriad forms of affirmative-action programs in higher education admissions. If we’re going to talk about affirmative action, then we should talk about all of it, and we need to talk about who really benefits.
Being a mixed-race person, I’m sure I benefited from race-based affirmative action. But I doubt that was enough to get a profoundly average high school student like me into the elite tier of American academia. Luckily, I also benefited from white racial preferences.
I grew up in the wealthy suburbs of Minneapolis, Minn., and my parents sent me to a private college preparatory school, which was predominantly white and designed for wealthy, white children. There, my entire high school experience was tailored toward building a college application. Despite my mediocre academic record, many colleges, especially those looking to boost their national ranking, rolled out the red carpet, practically guaranteeing me admissions. This had nothing to do with academic performance and everything to do with wealth and class.
I also had something else going for me. I was a decent athlete. I was a varsity football player for four years, captain of the track team and a conference champion discus thrower for three years. Like many of my teammates, I was heavily recruited, including by a few D1 schools, all of which had affirmative-action programs for student-athletes. These programs confer huge admissions advantages and have nothing to do with academic performance.
But wait, don’t student-athlete admission policies benefit Black athletes? Turns out they do not (except in just two sports). Here’s an illustration: Harvard was recruiting one of the white players on my high school football team, but he was initially rejected. The coach and the boy’s father got involved, and the decision was “overturned” by letting him in as a recruited athlete instead. This confirms a study that found that Harvard’s athletic admissions benefited aspiring white athletes but not Black ones.
I also had a third thing going for me. I was a legacy at Harvard. Legacy programs, which are now common only at elite schools like the Ivy League, are programs which give an extra admissions boost to applicants whose parents or grandparents attended the school. This program is a fundraising tool, has nothing to do with academic performance and almost exclusively benefits wealthy, white applicants. Unfortunately, it didn’t help me get into Harvard (something that still makes my father angry to this day) but did help my sister who was accepted two years later.
I want to pause here and note that all I’ve done so far is outline programs that have nothing to do with academic performance, and mostly benefit white applicants in admissions. Yet, despite this, no one ever complains that these applicants lack “merit.” On the contrary, we bend over backwards to find “merit.” Student-athletes have “grit” that helps them succeed in school. Prep school graduates are “better prepared.” And of course, we completely ignore the dark side of prep school and athletics entirely.
When a Black or brown student received a boost from race-based affirmative action, however, we do exact opposite. We assume they received it because they lack merit, and the struggles of Black and brown students become evidence that they were “mismatched” with a school that was too hard, even though the mismatch theory has been largely discredited both because it is based on racist assumptions and lacks empirical support. Thus, the myth of “merit” has become a double standard in college admissions that perpetuates racial inequality.
There are many more programs as well. When I was applying for college, there were affirmative=action programs for women and emerging affirmative-action programs for LGBTQ+ applicants, but in the absence of race-based affirmative action favoring Black and brown students to balance out white racial preferences, all these programs still work to benefit wealthy, white applicants.
My experience demonstrates how being rich and/or white gives unearned preferences in college admissions. The fact that these preferences are often unspoken or hidden behind a seeming non-racial façade like “special talent” or “better prepared” doesn’t make them any less problematic.
These white racial preferences still confer unearned benefits to white, wealthy applicants. Until we are ready to do away with these white racial preferences and have a serious (and honest) conversation about what constitutes merit, we still need explicitly race-based programs that equalize the playing field for Black and brown students.
Michael Vargas is a business and securities lawyer and a part-time professor at Santa Clara University Law School. Vargas also chairs the American Bar Association’s committee on Business Law Education and serves on the executive board of the Santa Clara County Democratic Party, and on the boards of BAYMEC and the Rainbow Chamber of Commerce.