Monday, March 7, 2011

Do race-based scholarships successfully ensure equal access to higher education? (Also: About that whites-only scholarship)

Colorlines reports:
It’s clear for anyone who’s been paying attention to America’s conservative right wing backlash that not everyone is happy about the country’s shifting demographics. But a group of white male college students in Texas have taken their antipathy to new levels by offering scholarships exclusively for white males. Recently, one of the groups member’s members took to the media in its defense.
William Lake is an MBA candidate at Texas State University in San Marcos and treasurer of the nonprofit Former Majority Association for Equality, the group that’s offering the scholarship. Lake told MSNBC on Tuesday that white men are “one group that just doesn’t have any support.”
And there’s more. “We saw opportunities for just about every single demographic, as far as pausing for college goes, except for this one,” Lake told Talking Points Memo. “We’re just providing one for this demographic. Why shouldn’t there be money available for these people?” Read more... 
On Sunday afternoon, one of my favorite race bloggers, Mikhail Lybansky (Op Ed News, Psychology Today), invited me to discuss this report and the larger issue of race-based scholarships. And when I have the opportunity to dialogue with an educator who speaks thoughtfully about race, I jump at the chance.

Following is a transcript of our discussion, edited for clarity and better flow. We invite you to share your thoughts in the comments section..

Tami: What bothers me most about this scholarship for white guys is that it demonstrates a lack of understanding for what "minority" scholarships are about.

Mikhail: Sure it does. It fails to acknowledge the reality that students of color face obstacles to success that white students don't, which is not to say that some white students don't also have obstacles -- they do -- but those obstacles are not related to their whiteness.

Tami: Right. Scholarships are not extra goodies offered to students of color or female students. Scholarships are meant to mitigate the imbalances in opportunity caused by race, gender, etc.

Mikhail: If we agree on the above, then the implication is that it is reasonable to have race-targeted scholarships for students of color and not for white students.

Tami: Yes.

It is also interesting that the difficulties faced by at least two of the men who are the face of this scholarship have nothing to do with their race. One had a criminal record. One was a poor student.

Mikhail: ...and I'd like to see educational opportunities (including scholarships) be available for members of those groups too!

Tami: Yes. Why not a scholarship for students with criminal records? But why does that student see whiteness at the root of his problem, I wonder?

Mikhail: The answer that comes to mind is that this student (and presumably many others) resent what they see as unfair advantages available to students of color. Basically, they see the policy response...but not the reason that the policy response is necessary.

Tami: I also have a problem with this Former Majority business. [Editor's note: (See article) The nonprofit offering the scholarship is called the Former Majority Association for Equality.]

Mikhail: How so?

Tami: The problems of POCs and women are not necessarily related to minority status. Indeed, aren't women slightly more than 50 percent of the population now? [Editor's note: We checked: women comprise 50.7% of the U.S. population according to he 2009 U.S. census data.] Our problems are related to racism, sexism and bias. These things can exist regardless of minority status. (See, for instance, apartheid-era South Africa).

Mikhail: I agree that it's not JUST minority status. Incidentally, women though just slightly more than 50% of population, comprise a much higher percentage of college students and an even higher percentage of college graduates [Editor's note: Women have represented about 57 percent of enrollments at American colleges since at least 2000, according to a recent report by the American Council on Education]. Numerically, men are an under-represented group in college. There are even some discussions happening (I don't know how seriously to take them.) about the possibility of an affirmative action program for male college applicants.

Tami: The scholarships these guys compare their scholarship to exist to mitigate imbalances of opportunity and social power. I would love to hear one of these students demonstrate how POCs and women have access to greater opportunity and power than white American men.

Mikhail: I don't think that kind of demonstration is possible, but they are not thinking in those terms. As I said, I think they see the scholarships but not the reason those scholarships are necessary.

Tami: You make a good point re: men being underrepresented in colleges. What is the prevailing wisdom on why that is? I suspect that this particular scholarship does not address the problem.

Mikhail: My understanding is that men are underrepresented in college because girls get better grades in high school and graduate at higher rates [Editor's note: Readers interested in more specifics regarding why the gender different exists are advised to read this article in the New York Times and this academic paper.]. And no, this particular scholarship clearly doesn't address that since it's race-based, not gender based.

Tami: Hmmm...I am conflicted now. It would seem that, given the reasons you've shared, a scholarship for men might be a reasonable response. My difficulty, though, is that the reasoning of this particular scholarship doesn't address root issues, but appears a sort of tit-for-tat: "Black people get scholarships; we should, too."

Mikhail: I think a scholarship for men is a reasonable response. This scholarship was for white students, which is illogical (and, to me, unethical) since white students are over-represented in colleges and universities, relative to non-white students.

Tami: Agreed. And not to take us in yet another direction. The scholarship also perpetuates the idea that minority scholarships always go to "undeserving" students, who cannot get into college any other way. That simply isn't true.

Mikhail: No, it is not true at all, and that actually relates to what I was hoping we could talk about:
I want to push this in a slightly different direction, because I was pretty sure we'd be in agreement about what we've talked about so far. I’m less sure about this next part: There are (unintended) costs for both students of color and for our society of having race-based scholarship and affirmative action programs. How would you feel about getting into that? It would be less safe for both of us, I think.

Tami: No problem. Let's go there. Full disclosure. I went to college on a full academic scholarship for minority students. Shoulda mentioned that earlier.

Mikhail: That's good to know, though it doesn't change anything for me. I'll reciprocate and disclose that I did not have a scholarship, race-based or otherwise...but did work the entire time I was in college to off-set the cost.

Mikhail: Ok, so I'll start with a provocative statement that I'm not sure I believe but that I've been mulling over...

Tami: Lets hear it!

Mikhail: Race-based scholarships (and race-based affirmative action in admissions), while a much-needed help for the targeted students, ultimately do more harm than good for both students of color and for our society. I can explain...or you can just jump in now :)




Tami: I don't agree that these scholarships do more harm than good, but I have long wondered if they are imperfect...or that they may not do enough to target specific students that need help. I once read about a university that reserved spots for first-generation students and those from poor and under-performing school systems, regardless of race. This sort of approach may be a more effective way to address the privileges that keep some students away from higher education.

I am a bit guided by my own experience. I am a black woman with a fair amount of educational privilege. I grew up in a middle class household. My parents both have graduate degrees. I went to good schools and had good teachers. I worked my ass off to get excellent grades and high SAT scores and faced no problems being accepted to my preferred colleges. Paying for school would have been difficult without a scholarship, as it is for most everyone, but I would have been okay without one. That is not the case for many, regardless of race, without my socio-economic and educational privileges.

Mikhail: So, let's assume for the moment that we agree on the benefits of race-based scholarships (we can return to this if necessary), it occurs to me that there are two categories of costs that are incurred. 1) costs to the recipients and 2) costs to society. I'll develop #1 first. Jump in whenever...

Mikhail: For the recipients, there are assumptions (as you mentioned) that the students are somehow less qualified. This is not just a "stereotype" that is imposed by the white majority. It is also a mindset that is (at least sometimes) internalized by the students of color themselves. The results are that they have less confidence in themselves and engage in a variety of behaviors that are not associated with academic success.

Tami: I agree with that point. I did encounter people who assumed that rather than being a good student, I was a poor student allowed to attend college simply because of my color. (Or that I was a student athlete, which, if readers knew me, they would know is a hilarious proposition.)

Mikhail: I'm guessing that you still had confidence in your own abilities, but it seems that, for some students, that confidence is missing.

Tami: Yes. There is ample anecdotal evidence that confirms this. When everyone around you doubts your capability, it is not surprising that one might have a crisis of confidence.

Mikhail: So, if that’s the case, are the scholarships really increasing the outcomes that we want?

Tami: I think the scholarships do increase the outcomes we want, but not without problems.

Mikhail: Ok, I'm open to that (I hope it's true)...what makes you think so?

Tami: These scholarships do increase the numbers of POCs in higher education, which is a good thing and not just for communities of color. What is rarely discussed is that diversity is a good thing for ALL students. My presence, I think, made for a better academic experience for the students around me--many of whom had no previous exposure to people of color.

Mikhail: I agree 100%. And, as you probably know, that argument (diversity is good for all) was the one used by the University of Michigan to defend its affirmative action practice the last time the Supreme Court heard an affirmative action case, I think in 2004 [Editor's note: It was actually in 2003. More information is available here]. And I'm also aware that when California outlawed affirmative action, enrollment by racially underrepresented groups dropped precipitously [Editor's note: specific data are available here.].

Tami: Yep. I also think it is a fallacy that college admissions have always (until affirmative action) been completely objective. Here is where I bring up legacy admissions and athletic scholarships, both of which afford admission to students based on things other than academic performance.

Mikhail: I've made the same arguments in defending affirmative action in the past. In fact, I am surprised that legacy admissions still exist. They are inherently racist, given that POC were systematically denied access to mainstream higher ed until relatively recently. I'd like to see legacy admissions go away...incidentally, my university recently had an admission scandal [Editor's note: see details here] in which the president lost his job because evidence emerged that politicians were requesting the university admit some applicants and the university was complying. And you don't need me to tell you that the students who were admitted this way were not students of color.

Tami: I think affirmative action admissions receive increased scrutiny precisely because they are related to race, whereas legacy admissions are related to privilege. We are used to Privilege getting what it wants and needs.

Mikhail: Yep. ...but I'm wondering if perhaps we have the right goal (more POC in higher ed) but using the wrong strategy (race-based scholarships, admissions).

Tami: I'm intrigued. What would be an alternate way of looking at the problem and a strategy for addressing it?

Mikhail: Need-based affirmative action in admissions and need-based scholarships, coupled with a racially diverse selection committee. Must have both! Number one without number two won't cut it!

Tami: I think ultimately I want to see a landscape where people who want to advance their education beyond high school are supported and encouraged to do so. I want to see a situation where being born in an area with below standard educational opportunities does not doom you from advancing. This is not the current situation. THAT is the problem.

Mikhail: Agreed! That's what I want too. And it is certainly NOT the current situation.

Tami: Regarding your alternative plan: Yes and yes. I think, though, that need extends beyond the financial. There has to be some path for students with scant pre-college educational opportunities to advance their educations. So, I would add that to the mix.

Mikhail: I agree. It seems like that would be where the community colleges come in. Frankly, they seem to be functioning much more equitably than their four-year counterparts.

Tami: So...1) Need-based admissions, 2) Consideration for students from under-performing school systems, and 3) diverse admissions panels.

Mikhail: And of course we need to reform how secondary and primary education are funded. The property taxes that we rely on now are also inherently racist (note: I am referring to outcomes, not intent) in that they reinforce current racial inequities.

Tami: Yes! There will be a need for affirmative action in college admissions until we fix the inequities in K-12 education.

Mikhail: Absolutely, but I see the educational system as one big system, such that it is possible to intervene at any point in the system and create ripples that affect the rest of the system. The notion of having to wait for K-12 reform before doing something is depressing. So, would you support the system you described (1-3) over the current race-based affirmative action practices?

Tami: Yep. Agreed. My point is that it is the K-12 inequity, in large part, that helps create the inequity in who is prepared for college. I think I could accept the 1-2-3 practice if I could be assured that it would lead to more people have access to higher education and more diverse student bodies.

Mikhail: That's part of it. There are other factors. I'm sure you agree. I don't think assurances are possible, but it would certainly be possible to track the data and evaluate the strategy.

Tami: Yes, data. That's what I would want.

Mikhail: ...and I bet we'd see higher [racial minority] graduation rates too!

Tami: This whole thing is like dominoes. The reality is that college graduates make more and have a much better shot at maintaining a good standard of living and passing that on to their children. Making higher education available to only a privileged few is a recipe for continued inequality and poverty.

Mikhail: I like your dominoes metaphor. And I haven't even had the chance to mention the costs to society of our current race-based policies --white resentment, which manifests itself in tea parties, "white-only" scholarships like the kind we started to discuss, and general distrust/prejudice directed at the beneficiaries and the "liberals" who support them. This is basically what I understand the “white” scholarships to be about. I see them as a symptom that what we're doing isn't working the way we want. And while I would prioritize policies that work for marginalized groups over those that are privileged, as I mentioned, I have long been suspecting that they're not working for those groups either, at least not as well as alternatives might. As an aside, I’m not saying that the race-based policies shouldn't have been implemented. I think we needed them at the time...and I think that we need something different now.

Tami: Privilege is a hard thing to fix. And I think it is at the heart of this whites-only scholarships. I suspect the young men interviewed in Colorlines see it as their right to have access to higher education, and they see their right being subverted by unworthy POCs. Thus, resentment.

Mikhail: Agreed! But surely the race-based scholarships are exacerbating the privilege, not challenging it.

Tami: I agree. The educational landscape is infinitely more complicated than it was in the mid-20th century. We need to evolve to reflect this--not because some folks are upset about their loss of privilege, but because evolution is necessary to meet our goals effectively.

Mikhail: Yes!

Readers, what do you think about the Former Majority's whites-only scholarship? Are race-based scholarships and admissions policies still the best way to ensure diverse student bodies and equal access to higher education? What are the pros and cons of the alternate approach that Mikhail and I discussed?

Weigh in in comments.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

This might be a dumb question, but can white hispanics apply for an associated minority scholarship?

I have 2 kids (caucasians) and they are by all definitions hispanic except for the fact that they were born in the USA and are white. Their primary language is Spanish. Do you actually have to be a tanned hispanic to qualify?

Jasmin said...

I'm late, but great post!

A lot of this came up at my (2% Black, private, Indiana) university in my Ethics class. My professor was a big proponent of AA (he's written books and everything), and he talked about the goal being diversity, not a righting of past wrongs (which would be fallacious, because it's not as if these wrongs aren't still happening). One thing I know, people have to examine their privilege before they can see how the educational system is set up to work to their advantage, and most people aren't up for that.

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