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Shaking the Education Tree

A column by Steve Russell about affirmative action and education among Native Americans.

A senate candidate in Massachusetts has been accused of playing Indian to gain employment advantage and the Supreme Court has taken up a case that many experts claim portends the end of affirmative action.

My mail tells me that Indians, like most Americans, are conflicted about affirmative action, but have little idea what it means. I have written about where it came from but not defined it. The time to engage that task is here.

The practice of affirmative action has two aspects: net broadening and preferences. Net broadening refers to fishing where the fish are: historically black colleges; Hispanic-serving colleges, tribal colleges. Net broadening has been sufficient to enroll plenty of women and Asians, because those groups have the test scores to walk though the front door. Their underrepresentation was a straightforward artifact of discrimination in recruiting and admissions.

While the underrepresentation of Indians, blacks, and Hispanics comes partially from overt discrimination, they also suffer from systemic discrimination by inferior education in K-12 schools, aggravated by generations of low expectations by both schools and parents. These people are like white kids from rural Appalachia, products of similarly inferior schools and low expectations, but the racists use the disparity in test scores to argue that we are naturally suited to take orders and they are naturally suited to give orders.

One big obstacle for first generation college students is the myth that all colleges are alike. I could easily have succumbed to that myth if I had not served in the military with people who were not first generation college students. The most educated person in my family was an aunt who was a registered nurse, but her entire experience was focused on the certification.

Vocational education is important, but it’s not the subject here. Anyone can get into some college, somewhere, now that overt discrimination is illegal. Once in, if you are looking for technical certification in anything from computer systems to respiratory therapy, you can acquire your certification and if you were born to a family of manual laborers, as I was, your life will be entirely different from the lives of your parents. Good for you, but you don’t need affirmative action.

So we come to the other prong of affirmative action, preferences, which the naysayers would claim is all of affirmative action. The antis also overlook the rule that if two candidates are equally qualified, affirmative action gives the nod to a member of an underrepresented class.

We who are in favor of affirmative action often overlook that if you give a bureaucrat the choice of a decision they have to justify (pick the white person) or a decision they do not have to justify (pick the minority), the result will be less qualified rather than equally qualified minorities getting preference. The predictable social outcome is the stigma on “affirmative action babies,” like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who without affirmative action would have gotten no closer to Yale Law School than working in the cafeteria. Now, he is likely to be a decisive vote in striking down affirmative action.

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To avoid the stigma, the only time I mentioned my tribe in college was to request a press release to the tribal paper when I graduated. I benefitted from the impulse behind affirmative action anyway, because I could not hide rural poverty and no high school diploma. I, too, could never have been accepted at Yale Law without affirmative action, but I got wait-listed and declined to wait.

I learned the hard way that there is no avoiding the stigma. As long as affirmative action exists, people will assume minorities with degrees got an extra hand. To have the policy, the price is worth paying.

I’ve now spent 15 years doing my best to help first generation college students, many minorities and many not.

George W. Bush graduated from a fine prep school and then skated though Yale with C’s. He was then admitted to Harvard Business School. My kids (biological or professional mentees) could never do that.

If I had told Yale I’m Cherokee, I expect I would have been admitted straight up rather than waitlisted. However, I had graduated from a top shelf state university magna cum laude and I had a decent LSAT score. At Yale, I would have been like Clarence Thomas, occupying a seat for which a white person with higher test scores was turned down. If the elite schools depended exclusively on test scores, they would be virtually all white and Asian.

Elite schools have better sense to admit people who can’t do the work. They have to cater to American royalty, but it’s in everybody’s best interests that they also serve the value of social mobility.

We who have no family to guide us can look up at the fruit we have been taught not to expect and tell ourselves it’s probably sour anyway. Or we can shake the damn tree.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.