By Eva C. Schweitzer
American universities have always had student quotas. A friend of mine whose father came from a family of Jewish immigrants from, I think, Ukraine, or maybe Russia, applied to Columbia University. That must have been about sixty years ago.
Even then, Jewish Americans were interested in education, more than the Anglo elite, the Anglican Protestants from England, would have liked. Anyhow, the old-fashioned, career-promoting Ivy League universities, which include Columbia, had quotas for the maximum number of Jews who could enroll.
My friend’s father didn’t make it, even though he had better grades than some WASP who got accepted. But he didn’t want to give in, so he marched into the director’s office and emphatically explained what good results he had and that this was unfair. The director looked at him doubtfully, then took out the card file with the names of the admitted students, leafed through it and said condescendingly: “Well, I think we can still find a place for one more Jew.”
My friend’s father then went to Harvard.
Today, US universities and colleges still have quotas, but they are different: They demand a minimum instead of placing a limit. Or they were, because the Supreme Court just abolished this regulation. Right now, last week.
The Supreme Court’s verdict
It was a verdict like an earthquake, but it did not come as a surprise. Caused great upheaval, of course, but we now have the three newly appointed conservative constitutional judges that Trump put into office. That was bound to happen.
The verdict only affects universities that use federal funds, which to my astonishment seems to include Harvard, also Ivy League. Harvard was one of the defendants: The Ivy Leaguer in Boston had rejected an Asian student even though he had better grades than some who were accepted.
The verdict was the culmination of an exciting week. The Canadians have once again sent a few plumes of smoke from their burning forests to New York, which is angering as now, the weather is supposed to be really hot. And of course we watch fascinated on TV how the French burn down their suburbs. Usually in America there are riots because of police violence and the French tell us not to be so racist – it’s nice that its this time the other way around.
Affirmative Action considered racism
The Supreme Court also considered Affirmative Action to be racism. This is a method of preferring to admit students to universities because of their skin color by giving different weight to the many, often obscure, factors that play a role in admission. And getting a place at an Ivy League university is super important, that’s the ticket to your future career.
The procedure is not new. Affirmative Action dates back to the 1960s and then-President Lyndon Johnson, who pushed through allowing African Americans to vote. At that time it was about jobs.
Under Obama, however, it was also enforced at universities that preference was given to Afro-Americans, but also to Indians and Hispanics, immigrants from Mexico and South America. But not other immigrants, none from Asia, no Indians, Chinese, Koreans, Pakistanis or Filipinos.
Not only has a Chinese student sued Affirmative Action; the majority of Americans are behind him. Many feel that too much is already being done for African Americans. Slavery was so long ago. And can really talented immigrants be denied a place at university?
Slavery was long ago? Yes, that’s true. But what followed was a very long period of disadvantage and discrimination, and not just in the southern states. US President Woodrow Wilson introduced racial segregation at the federal level before World War I, on buses and trains. Even in states that didn’t prohibit blacks and whites from marrying, this was strictly taboo.
And that white-occupied city and state governments, white mobs too, demolished black housing developments, businesses, churches, colleges — we remember the Tulsa Massacre, or more accurately, we just discovered it happened, we don’t remember — that was still happening in the 20th century.
Still “redlining” under Clinton Administration
Even under Bill Clinton there was “redlining”: The practice of banks using a red pen to circle certain neighborhoods that were too poor, meaning black, to get credit. Clinton pressurized banks to give it up. Now Afro-Americans got real estate loans, but as bad risks on worse terms. They went bust first when the banks under George Bush Jr. nearly crashed the world economy. That’s not so long ago.
Still… Clarence Thomas, one of the Supreme Court justices who voted against Affirmative Action, is black himself, and would not have become archconservative constitutional judge without it.
The Democrats believe, deep down, that if they help African Americans make careers, they’ll stay loyal voters forever, but that’s probably a fallacy. Much like the almost 80-year-old liberal constitutional judge Ruth Baden Ginsberg, who could have resigned under Obama so that the president could appoint a new, young, left-wing constitutional judge. For lifetime. She believed she was immortal and irreplaceable. Also a fallacy.
Afro-American professor against Affirmative Action
John McWorther, a Columbia University professor, New York Times columnist and also African-American, spoke out against Affirmative action after the verdict. Not unexpectedly, McWorther’s role is to hold an opinion contrary to that of the average black man. He’s a kind of Ahmad Mansour of the USA, watched suspiciously by left-wing whites because he disturbs their helper complex.
In his column, McWorther describes how he rose to the rank of permanent professor because well-intentioned white people really wanted a black man for a job, even though others were more qualified. He considered himself seriously underqualified and tried to make up for these deficits before the students noticed and he made a fool of himself by that. Now he’s against it.
But still… The disadvantage is real. So, affirmative action for the descendants of black slaves, that makes some sense.
The weird thing about the debate is something entirely different: How did Hispanics get into this? Hispanics are Spanish-speaking immigrants from southern countries, many from Mexico, but also from Venezuela or El Salvador, Argentina or Costa Rica, or, in the case of Puerto Ricans, residents of a US-occupied island who have now been granted the same civil rights as Anglo-Saxons.
Sonia Sotomayors, also a Supreme Court judge, who comes from a Puerto Rican family, self-identifies as a ‘Woman of Color’. She certainly did not have an easy path: Alcoholic father, difficult mother, she grew up in the Bronx during the gang wars, but still she is 100 percent southern European.
Europeans turn brown when immigrating from Latin America
Are southern Europeans in America white? Only if they come directly from Europe. If they take a detour via Puerto Rico, they are somehow considered brown, like the Italians or the Jews in earlier days. Neither right-wing nor left-wing Americans can be driven out of this obsession. But it only applies to southern Europeans. Mitt Romney, for example, whose father was born in Mexico, is still radiantly white.
In fact, in Puerto Rico and elsewhere, the Spanish settlers exterminated the natives, and quite brutally so. While the US left lives in the fiction that Latinos are half-Indians, the true Southwest Indians, the Apaches, the Navajo, the Hopi, like the Hispanics – far less than the Anglos – still tell stories today how the conquistadors chopped off the Indian children’s feet alive.
Scientists have proven through DNA research that some Puerto Ricans do indeed still have traces of Taino DNA, traces of the former tribes before Columbus came, or even black blood, although this goes back more to the occupation of Spain by the Moors. But so are white Southerners. The number of Anglos who boast of a Cherokee great-grandmother is legion. And the number of white Southerners who don’t boast about a black great-grandmother is even higher.
If it was the amount of drops of black blood that mattered and not a personal family history of poverty and slavery, then the US should also implement affirmative action for other immigrants whose great-great-great-grandparents had some exposure to sub-Saharan Africa. Egyptians, for example, don’t they also have black African blood? Libyans? Ethiopian Jews? Afro-Germans? African-born French fleeing police violence to New York?
Certainly one of the legitimate reasons to be against Affirmative Action is that it puts skin color above all else; about poverty, education, wealth, family history, immigration status, all things that are also important but that nobody really cares about in the USA. Anyone who had a difficult time as a child and is not a Spaniard from the Bronx with a drop of Moroccan blood does not get any help. Class questions are of no interest here.
Registering genetic data in the passport?
There is an even more fundamental reason to be against Affirmative Action: The debate about which skin color, which ethnic group is entitled to which preference has meanwhile borne strange fruit in research. We now know that a Puerto Rican can be 65.6 percent Hispanic, 5.8 percent Taino, 7.3 percent Guanche — that’s the indigenous people of the Canaries who are related to the Berbers — 6 percent Sub-Saharan Black and the Rest Italian and Irish.
Should that be enough for Affirmative Action? How about a ten percent minimum quorum of black or Native American blood? I’m sure as science progresses you’ll soon be able to analyze that out of a drop of spit and maybe register it on your passport or something.
Do we want a culture where people have advantages because of their genetic mix? Do we even want to allow detailed chromosome analysis? In a country where data protection is a total foreign word? The US is already Balkanized enough without students having to submit a genetic fingerprint to get into Harvard. And we can still find a seat for any half-Celtic-half-Ukrainian Cherokee with Alaskan ancestry.
Previously published on Overton-Magazin in german here. Translation and subtitles by UWI.