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Affirmative Action Debate is Poppycock

Affirmative Action Debate is Poppycock


With apologies for being quite blunt . . . the debate about affirmative action is almost entirely poppycock.

Last week the Supremes heard arguments in a duo of cases challenging affirmative action (AA) in college admissions. Based on oral arguments, the end is near. Of course the oral arguments were unnecessary for a court with four privileged white men, one white handmaiden and a Black guy who, during these arguments, asked, “What’s diversity?”

Poppycock #1

The “arguments” this week centered primarily on the educational value of racial diversity. This focus was inevitable because all the other justifications for AA had been whittled away in prior decisions. Proponents of AA have been left with only educational value, which is really rich in that it essentially asks Black folks, once again, to teach white folks. If I were a Black man, I’d say, “No thanks. Teach your own damn selves.” Which is, I suppose, why I’m writing this piece.

Fairness requires that I do acknowledge the educational value of diversity, especially in the form of Black activists who specialize in upsetting the white privilege apple cart. But that’s really not what Harvard et al have in mind. They are more inclined toward Carlton Banks (check it out!) than to Malcom X. Each side trotted out their favorite research showing the rich benefits or total irrelevance of diversity.

The real importance of AA is as overdue justice – reparations, if you will. If one needs evidence of the ongoing, pernicious reality of racism, look no further than the 70% of Americans who are against AA, including Clarence Thomas, who is so resentful of AA that he married a White Nationalist.

And AA is not just giving preference to Black applicants. It is – or should be – recognition that the whole system, from birth to application, is built on a foundation of white bricks from social and cultural hegemony to; test bias; stereotype threat; K-12 funding disparity; racial gaps in wealth; early education disadvantages; health issues; and to white dominance in policy, administration and faculty at every level of schooling.

Poppycock #2

The Harvard case is based on the absurd idea that missing out on Harvard is severely traumatic. As is true of all the “top tier” schools, reputation is largely based on rankings from sources like US News and World Report. Top rankings derive from meaningless statistics like the number of hearts they can break. The more applications and rejections, the better.

It is just self-fulfilling nonsense. They take students with the highest SAT scores and grades and then they are “ranked” at the top because their incoming class had high SAT scores and grades. The ridiculous chase for the Ivies is toxic. It creates anxiety, high levels of stress and rampant depression. It depresses curiosity and creativity. The education may or may not be good. Many classes are taught by graduate assistants.

Many faculty members at highly selective colleges report that their high-flying students are not only stressed and depressed, but alarmingly incurious. After all, they’ve been conditioned to answer questions, not ask them. They sit with notebook in hand, diligently recording the professors’ points of view so as to accurately reiterate them on the next exam or writing assignment.

One lovely student, to whom I had expressed this reality in high school, grabbed the brass ring of Princeton admission despite maintaining her mental health and asking plenty of questions. At her first fall break, she stopped by my office.

(I paraphrase) “Steve! You were so right! At the start of the semester, in a small freshman class, the professor asked us to write an essay – no grade – to get an idea of our interests and writing ability. A student asked, ‘What should we write about?’ ‘Whatever you wish to write about,’ he replied. ‘But give us an idea of what you want,’ chirped another student. ‘I don’t care,’ he replied with mild irritation. ‘Write about whatever interests you.’ ‘But, but . . . what are we supposed to be interested in?’”

I headed a school for two decades and hoped for seniors to be accepted at Ivies (for their egos and parents’ cocktail boasts) and then decline the offer and go to, for example, Oberlin.

Poppycock #3

It is not as though a grassroots social justice movement arose and brought all these lawsuits through the system to the Supremes. It’s all the work of neoconservative activist Edward Blum. For decades he has fished for students willing to act as surrogates for his personal campaign. He has been supported by big conservatives bucks from like-minded “think” tanks who think racism is dead and it is white people who are getting the short end of the stick and the long end of the shaft.

There is lots of damage done in America, but it’s not done to the statistically insignificant number of Asian-American or white kids Blum claims are victims of injustice. They invariably go to another “elite” school.

A legal case requires proof that the plaintiff(s) have been harmed, not that their tender feelings were hurt. The only reason these cases rise to the Supreme Court is because the conservative justices are fishing for petitioners and Blum serves them up a few whoppers.

Every recent case that has led to dismantling social justice (voting rights, gun rights, abortion) has been pushed through the system by a similar process.

What a waste of time and resources, just because of one zealot and his wealthy conservative patrons.


Steve Nelson
Steve Nelson is a retired educator, author, and newspaper columnist. He and his wife Wendy moved to Erie from Manhattan in 2017 to be near family. He was a serious violinist and athlete until a catastrophic mountain bike accident in 2020. He now specializes in gratitude and kindness.

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