Success Isn’t Just What You Know, but Who You Know

The following reader seems to agree with our Ivy League black reader, who suggests that if forms of non-racial, non-academic preferences are given to students all the time (e.g. legacy), then race-based affirmative action, however flawed, should be in the mix as well:

The question should be framed as one bigger than race: Should a school be allowed to consider its needs when building an incoming class? A school may desire to promote donations by giving a preference to donors, athletic reputation by giving preference to athletes, political currency by giving preference to the children of celebrities, or a more inclusive culture by giving preference to historically underrepresented classes. Should a school have this kind of discretion?


If so, it seems reasonable that a school should have it in all areas, including race, rather than disproportionately in those areas where discretion will tend to favor the wealthy.

Another reader suspects that I, or the black Ivy League reader, might have fabricated her email and its personal angst with affirmative action (for the record, her identity and Ivy status were confirmed prior to publication):

Why do white people always go get (or make up) some letter from some poor black student who says he or she was harmed or shamed by affirmative action? It’s such bullshit.


But I get it. As a black man whose undergrad years were right at the start of this—1969 to 1973—I’m used to white distraction and bullshit. I have never known a black student who said they were shamed by AA. Never. If you find one you should videotape them and put it up on Youtube.

What we black students said at the time and I continue to hear, is that AA is just what white men have been getting throughout the history of this country and continue to get in every sphere of life.


Colleges have gone after certain groups from Day One. For centuries they went after white men exclusively. Interestingly, Harvard and Yale (among other early colleges) went after Indian students to train them to go back and domesticate (pacify) members of their tribes.


How long do we need AA in America? As long as we have racial hypocrites. You want to get rid of AA, then get rid of legacy, saving places for artists, athletes, students with rich parents, students from certain geographical areas.


Entrance exams? These tests have shown to be poor indicators of academic success. That’s why many schools no longer require them, or use them along with a broader array of indicators of academic competence and commitment. When people argue AA is wrong or no longer needed, they’re just saying this is a white man’s country and they want the law and practices to reflect that.


Last point: Look at the public, state-supported universities in America. Look at the black enrollment at these schools before and after affirmative action.


My freshman year in college—1969 to 1970—there were 70 blacks on campus, out of 22,000 students. The 70 of us were more Blacks than in the prior 140 year history of the university. My parents and grandparents paid taxes to support a university system they couldn’t attend. But AA and the brave people behind it enabled me to go.

Another reader looks beyond college:

The main scenario people use when discussing affirmative action involves a white student with a “higher-scoring” application than a black student. But on its face, this scenario is flawed because it doesn’t exist. In the workplace, applicants with less work experience and less education are hired over people with more all the time. Similarly, having a letter of recommendation from a prominent citizen (e.g. a Senator or CEO) or the right last name can propel a B student in front of an A student in K-12 private school admissions.


That’s the real world—and in the real world, those kinds of decisions are perfectly acceptable. It only becomes unacceptable when a person of color has a perceived advantage over a white person, an argument that seemingly ignores that by default white students will always have an advantage over people of color.

Join the debate via hello@theatlantic.com. Update from a reader:

This is in response to the reader who said “I have never known a black student who said they were shamed by AA. Never. If you find one you should videotape them and put it up on Youtube.”


I don’t personally agree with him, but Clarence Thomas (arguably the second most powerful black man on earth) is very vocal about disliking affirmative action for the exact reasons your anonymous Ivy League correspondent noted.

This reader invokes the only other African American justice in U.S. history:

For an enlightening hour, one should listen to the spoken opinions in the Bakke case, a full 50 minutes. Two things worth noting: i) the comity with which the Supreme Court operates, as compared to the current divisive and insulting manner of the Justices but especially ii) the final opinion, a dissent by Thurgood Marshall, who gives his brethren a history lesson that puts the injury to Bakke in proper perspective and applies equally to the current contrived Fisher case.