A Critique of the Radical Conservative Approach to Affirmative Action

by Kimberly Fleury

U.S. seeks to halt minority, women fellowships – Race in America – MSNBC.com

“The court said you can’t categorize people purely by race,” said Mark Cordes, a law professor at Northern Illinois University. “The same thing would apply to a fellowship. At that point, you aren’t treating people as individuals.”


Fellowships do NOT treat people as individuals. That’s the point of competitive fellowship programs, which establish criteria for selecting scholars to receive fellowship funding. These criteria generally stipulate “outstanding academic credentials.” That immediately disqualifies a lot of people, and it is most certainly intended to be discriminatory, but not unfairly so. The aim of estabilishing criteria for fellowship grants is to seek the cream of the crop in any given population so as to encourage scholarship in our best and brightest minds.

Beyond assessing academic credentials, various fellowships further narrow the eligible pool of applicants to those who meet factors such as program of study and group affiliation, among others. Group affiliation-based fellowships include those granted to the offspring of alumni or organizations such as private or civic clubs, or membership in said club. Additional criteria may include such factors as citizenship, and/or residency in particular states. Some fellowships specify an eligible “year of study” — e.g., “Applicant must be a junior in college”; “… hold a B.A. or B.S.;” “… have graduated within the past two years;” “… be a post-graduate student,” etc. Even the age of the applicant can be a factor in determining eligibility, with some limiting candidates to an age range (e.g., between 21-25), and others going so far as to restrict eligibility to those of a specific age (e.g., “Candidate must be 27 years old.”).

Law professor Mark Cordes notes, “The court said you can’t categorize people purely by race.” [Italics mine.] No fellowship does that. Fellowships that limit eligibility to traditionally underrepresented groups include more than just an applicant’s race in their eligibility criteria, including some of those factors discussed in the previous paragraph.

If race is an unfairly discriminatory criterion, then so too are other narrow criteria, including age and “year of study” requirements. These are, after all, extremely limited in their scope of potential applicants. Some of the most limiting factors determining eligibility for certain fellowships could even favor the children of the “The Center for Equal Opportunity” conservative think tank members who are behind this protest against counting race and gender as a fair criterion. Especially exclusive are those fellowships open only to members of certain private or civic organizations, and those available only to the children of alumni of particular colleges and universities. Not surprisingly, such fellowships are most often awarded to people who belong to traditionally amply-represented populations — i.e., middle- or higher-class white males. If the conservative think tank and U.S. Justice Department are correct in their call to end race-based fellowships, then they must be prepared to exclude other narrow eligibility requirements.

The curiosity is that the Center for Equal Opportunity and the Justice Department have chosen to target the Graduate Dean’s fellowships (begun in 2000), the Proactive Recruitment and Multicultural Professionals for Tomorrow fellowships (begun in 2000) and the Bridge to the Doctorate fellowships (begun in 2004) at Southern Illinois University. These are very recent fellowships targeting scholars from traditionally underrepresented groups There are many older fellowship programs that serve the same purpose at many other colleges and universities around the U.S. The C.E.O. could have chosen any of these to protest, yet it is focused on some of the most recently-established fellowships.

The answer may be that the older fellowship programs have a long track record of success. Since their inception, fellowships geared toward underrepresented populations have contributed to increased graduate enrollments, retention, and graduation rates for these groups. Consider that recently announced figures cite just a graduation and retention (G&R rate) of just 44% for Hispanics and 39% for African Americans at all levels (undergrad and graduate). These rates are dismally low, yet without financial assistance such as fellowships offer, those rates would be even lower.

The U.S. Department of Education website (http://www.ed.gov/policy/highered/reg/hearulemaking/2002/reauthhearing/c-terry-hartle.html?exp=7) notes:

Research has demonstrated that having adequate financial resources is by far the single most important consideration taken into account when making the decision about attending college. According to a 2002 report from the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, over 400,000 college-qualified students will not attend a four-year college and nearly 170,000 won’t attend college at all because of financial barriers. We believe that the federal government can and should take multiple steps to address this issue.

One of the myths that radical conservative groups like C.E.O. propagate is that programs and incentives targetting minority and underrepresented groups lead to lowering academic expectations and requirements for college admissions. The truth is that colleges and universities with policies encouraging student diversity recognize that there are differences in backgrounds that influence the individual’s prospects for academic success. Students who have backgrounds where a college degree is an expected path have, by far, a greater advantage for achieving success in academic pursuits – beginning with the application and enrollment process. It is not a matter of being *more intelligent,* but of lifelong training in the subtleties of maneuvering through academia. The training begins in early childhood – perhaps even in infancy – and is so ingrained that individuals who possess it don’t even know where it came from. Moreover, such individuals are unable to even IDENTIFY the trait. This helps to explain why so many believe that affirmative action requires lowering standards for minorities.

Until recently, primary education for minorities overwhelmingly focused on training workers for menial or – at best – blue collar work. Actually, all children in working class neighborhoods could expect an education geared towards this end. It was true that *some* were expected to go on to college, maybe be the first in their families to do so, but it was an abstract *Some,* consisting of only the *Best and Brightest and Most Dedicated.* To some extent, teachers in lower-income schools still recite that message today.

It sounds noble, and even proper — after all, only those with the intellectual aptitude and dedication to scholarship *should* earn a position in our institutions of higher learning. That in itself is not disputed. However, consider the tone in which this message is repeated: It is a tone which suggests that you can’t go to college unless you are *Good Enough.* Good enough to earn a scholarship, and work your way through college. OK, that’s fine too — there’s no problem with being a good enough student to earn a scholarship, and to work your way through school. Now consider further that, historically, these students were taught that competition for these scholarships is so fierce that only few would win. Many, students were told, might qualify, but only a few would win.

There is nothing inherently wrong with competition. The competition for scholarships among disadvantaged students has always encouraged some to strive harder. The *Wrong* arises when such competition results in shutting out otherwise qualified candidates who are unable to fund an education solely by working their way through school and taking out what student loans they may. This was the situation until financial aid programs of various types were established to assist these students in obtaining a higher education.

Compare that to primary schools with student populations who are expected to go to college. The schools’ families tend to be higher-income, so college funding isn’t generally an issue to consider in planning for college (other than setting aside the money). In those schools, teachers don’t bother warning students that they will only be able to go to college if they are the *Best and Brightest and Most Dedicated.* Teachers simply teach what will later be needed in college, without saying that’s what they’re teaching … and part of that teaching includes subtle socializing in the procedures of going to college. Individual ability has very little relevance in determining who, of these students, will or will not go on to college. (Consider George W. “himself”).

Now consider that college admissions testing does not aim to identify students’ knowledge, but aptitude. In other words, admissions tests such as the SATs seek to predict who will be able to learn and succeed in college. Conservatives complain about certain remedial courses offered by many colleges, citing this as evidence that *unqualified* students are being admitted (and, they fear, “taking the place” of “more qualified” white [male] candidates – an obvious fallacy when you consider that colleges and universities prefer to increase enrollment than to “squeeze out” prospective students).

What conservatives don’t discuss (perhaps because they don’t know) is that these remedial programs are designed to teach what is needed to succeed in college coursework, not because the students were *too stupid* or *too lazy* to learn it in high school, but because those courses were not OFFERED in their high schools or were offered in such a way as to be geared towards blue-collar and menial work! That is an extremely important distinction, and a vital factor in creating the “traditionally underrepresented population.”

It took more than one hundred years to create a traditional and persistent underrepresented population; it will take more than these forty years since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to UNCREATE it. It will take more than these four years since the still-babystepping “No Child Left Behind” Act to redress the inequities of our diverse and disparate public primary schools. Even with affirmative action programs and accommodations in colleges, total minority enrollment* averages about 15% of the nation’s overall student population, representing less than their presence in total national population.

*total minority population figures include African American; Hispanic, Pacific Islander, and Native American.

By the time college students of any stripe [is that a pun?] succeed to graduation, they have – as a group – become more alike in terms of academic skill. This is somewhat due to retention failure rates (that is, failures due to academic shortcomings within the student – e.g., the rare discovered inability to learn material, or the more common neglect at effort – as opposed to hardship circumstances such as lack of finances). But it is also due, in no small part, to students whose access to remedial courses in their freshmen years enabled them to achieve to their full potential. In other words, at graduation, there is very little difference in the achievements of whites and minorities.

Also by the time college students graduate, they generally know whether they meet minimum academic criteria to qualify for advanced study fellowships. Yet, of even those who might qualify, only a small percentage continue their education.

The total graduate population at Southern Illinois University is 5,500. Of this number, only 8% are students from underrepresented populations. That is 440 – four hundred and forty, out of five thousand five hundred. Break that 8% further into its specific constituents — African American, Hispanic, Pacific Islander, Native American, and females. The breakdown illustrates just how few of each group is represented in SIU’s graduate program.

Further consider that, since the minority fellowships programs were begun, they have funded 129 students. One hundred twenty nine, out of four hundred forty individuals from various underrepresented groups.

What white boy’s place are those students stealing? What white boy is losing out on grant money that is instead funding a qualified student from minority group? Why do anti-affirmative action conservatives feel so threatened by such a small number of students?

What the………?

An example of a fellowship program serving underrepresented graduate students:

Arthur A. Schomburg Graduate Fellowship Program

Sponsored by the State University of New York, this highly competitive fellowship is available to individuals who have been traditionally underrepresented in graduate and professional programs, and who are accepted as first-time, full-time students in a graduate or professional program. Students are nominated by their department for this award, which provides a generous stipend for graduate students, plus a full tuition scholarship. If you would like to be considered for a fellowship, please indicate your intent when completing your online admissions application. For more information about the Arthur A. Schomburg Graduate Fellowship Program, please visit http://wings.buffalo.edu/psua/98comp/PSUA/SCHOMB.HTM

The Schomburg Fellowship Program offers support for historically underrepresented African American, Native American, and Hispanic American minority students in graduate programs across the university. Students in the program have outstanding academic credentials that contribute to an impressive graduation and retention rate of nearly 80 percent*. Schomburg fellows participate in conferences and seminars and present papers in their respective disciplines. Since its inception in 1987, more than 400 academically talented graduate students have received support through tuition scholarships and stipends.

*To be fair, it must be noted that it is not clear whether the “nearly 80%” figure represents Schomburg Fellows, SUNY graduate students, or all SUNY students. SUNY publishes data claiming an overall 80% G&R rate, but Schomburg, and indeed graduate student data are sorely lacking on the internet.


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