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Friday, September 29, 2023

Time to abandon legacy admissions

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I was a first-generation college student. Even at a very young age I understood the importance of obtaining a degree, and I always had an innate sense that I would do so. As I reflect on my formative years, this seems strange because there was little reason that I should have had such confidence given my socioeconomic and familial circumstances.

I was reared primarily by my grandparents. Despite their formidable intelligence, their academic accolades in high school, and their career accomplishments, neither of them attended college. My grandfather was an Army veteran; he and my grandmother had 30-plus year careers as relatively highly placed civil servants. It was exceedingly rare for their generation of African Americans to enroll in college. Still, they and my mother insisted that I would obtain a postsecondary degree. They all pushed me to excel academically. In so doing, they exposed the oft-repeated lie that Black parents don’t care about education.

Their dream for me became a reality. I am blessed to have graduated from two so-called “elite” institutions. This means that my children would have a leg up if they chose to apply to those schools. My eldest child decided not to apply to either school as an undergraduate or as a graduate student. My middle child has just started her college journey, also having foregone applying to my alma maters. That leaves my third child, who is a junior in high school. He has yet to decide where he would like to attend. I will place no pressure on him to follow in my footsteps. No sir, not at all. Probably… Maybe.

In any case, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s exceedingly misguided decision to overturn affirmative action in college admissions, I have increasingly seen and engaged in discussions regarding “legacy” admissions. In this context, a “legacy” is a college applicant whose close relative (usually a parent or grandparent) attended a given college. Even though legacies tend to have lower grades and test scores than other students who apply to highly selective institutions, they are more likely to be admitted. They also tend to be overwhelmingly white.

Interestingly, some African American parents, especially those who graduated from top colleges and universities, are bristling at the notion of eradicating preferences for legacies. Their perspective could be summarized as follows: “After hundreds of years of discriminating against Blacks simply for being Black, now you want to remove a privilege that benefits us? I don’t think so.”

I am very sympathetic to that perspective. In fact, I love it. Some African Americans are uncomfortable taking advantage of certain preferences fearing that doing so fosters perceptions of inferiority. Others have no less shame than their white counterparts who benefit from such unearned privilege. These individuals understand and embrace the fact that America has never been a “meritocracy”. Indeed, it was never intended to be.

However, I ultimately decided to favor the banning of preferences for legacies. Banning such preferences (along with others that I will reference shortly) eventually would level the playing field for all students. If the actual goal is to foster a meritocracy, it is axiomatic that we must eliminate preferences for those who are already privileged. Doing so is only a first step, but it is a crucial first step.

Of course, I highly doubt that a level playing field is, in fact, the goal. Chief Justice John Roberts is well-known for frequently saying that “the way to stop discriminating is to stop discriminating.” He doesn’t really mean that. If he did, we would be on a decades-long crusade to end preferences that benefit white people. Instead, he, only with his fellow conservative justices only attack preferences that benefit people of color.

In addition to legacy admissions, we as a society should agree to eradicate preferential college admissions for athletes, for the children of faculty and staff, and especially for the wealthy. As I highlighted in a previous column, these four categories overwhelmingly benefit white students – at the expense of students of color. Those who so passionately claim to favor “merit” should be jumping up and down in condemnation of such preferences. Yet, they are as silent as church mice. Why? Because what they actually care about is preserving privileges that have benefited white Americans for centuries. They simply lack the integrity to admit as much.

In Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin wrote: “I think that the past is all that makes the present coherent, and further, that the past will remain horrible for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly.” In short, our past is our prologue. Let us all commit to creating a different narrative for our future.

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