Saturday, October 8, 2011

Lani Guinier: Race As A Decoy For Class

Lani Guinier

Rebecca Parrish, a Dollars & Sense intern in the summer of 2005, interviewed Lani Guinier in an article published in ZNET entitled, "The Meritocracy Myth," published on 9 March 2006:

In Arkansas in 1957 whites rioted as Central High School in Little Rock was desegregated by nine carefully-chosen middle-class black students. The rage and hate on people's faces was broadcast on national television and President Eisenhower had to send in the National Guard to ensure that blacks could get an education. What most people don't know is that at same time as the leaders of city of Little Rock planned the desegregation of Central High, they built and opened a new high school located in area where the sons and daughters of the doctors and lawyers lived.

Blacks were coming in at the same time that upper class whites were exiting and this was part of what provoked the intense backlash; there was the sense among the working class whites who remained that their chances for upward mobility were lost because they could no longer fraternize with the middle and upper class.Previously, there were only two high schools in Little Rock, one white and one black. So Central High was segregated by race and integrated by class. Now Central was integrated by race and segregated by class.

Beth Roy did interviews with white graduates of Central High thirty years later [for her book Bitters in the Honey] and determined that many of them still blame blacks for the failure of themselves and their children to gain a secure toehold in a middle class lifestyle. They think that the American Dream owed them individual opportunity through its promise that if you work hard and play by the rules you will succeed. The problem with the American Dream is that it offers no explanation for failure other than that you deserve your lot in life and that if you fail there must be something wrong with you. Many people are perfectly willing to believe that success is individual but don't want to think about failure as individual and no one wants to believe that they deserve to fail. So they find a scapegoat and blacks were an easy scapegoat in this case. Even thirty years later, the white graduates of Central High claimed that blacks stole the American Dream.

While the integration of Central was hyper-visible, the building of Hall High was kept under wraps--most people still don't know about it. Wealthier whites were able to get away with building Hall High because blacks were used as a scapegoat.

Rebecca Parrish: You and Gerald Torres wrote about the Texas Ten Percent Plan in The Miner's Canary. How does that relate to this?

Lani Guinier: Sheryl Hopwood was a white working-class woman who applied to the University of Texas Law School and was denied admission. In 1996, she sued the university for racial discrimination, arguing that less qualified blacks and Latinos had taken her spot. Thirty-nine years after Central, she sued in the district court and then in the Fifth Circuit and won, but the problem with the court's analysis was that they did not look behind the school's claim that all slots, except for those bestowed through Affirmative Action, were distributed based on merit.
It actually turns out that the school's own formula for determining merit disadvantaged Sheryl Hopwood. She went to a community college and the University of Texas Law weighted her LSAT scores with those of other applicants from her school and graduating year. Because her community college drew from a working class population, Hopwood's own LSAT score was negatively weighted. So Hopwood's chance of attending the University of Texas was diminished because of class status not because of her race.

After the ruling in Hopwood's favor, a group of legislators and concerned citizens determined that the University of Texas would not return to its segregationist roots. They started investigating the population of the University of Texas graduate school and found that 75% students admitted according to "merit" were coming from only 10% of high schools in the state. These schools tended to be suburban, white, and middle or upper class. Their logic was that if the University of Texas is supposed to be a flagship school and a place from which the state's leaders would be drawn, then 10% of students from each high school in the state should be automatically eligible for access. So the Texas Ten Percent Plan was passed by the legislature and Governor Bush signed it into law.

It all started with concern about racial diversity but it was discovered that class was also at the core. The law ultimately passed because a conservative republican legislator voted for the law when he learned that not one of his constituents, who were white and poor or working class, had been admitted in the previous cycle. So, "meritocratic" standards were keeping out poor and working class whites, especially the rural poor. Many people worried that if SAT scores were eliminated as marker, then grades would go down. However, those who've come in based on the Ten Percent plan have had higher freshman year grades.

Rebecca Parrish: You've said before that race is being used as a decoy.

Lani Guinier: Race was being used as a decoy for class, leading working-class and poor whites to challenge Affirmative Action, and to challenge the integration of Central High School. In fact, meritocratic standards, which favor the wealthy, have kept them out. Too often, poor and working class whites are willing to throw their lot in with upper class and middle class whites because class is obscured while race is quite visible. People think that if anyone can succeed, if these other whites can succeed, then they can too because merit claims to be about the individual operating without regard to background conditions.

Rebecca Parrish: So what are the background conditions of students of color attending elite universities?

Lani Guinier: Many students admitted through Affirmative Action are not that different from those admitted through conventional standards of merit because schools are so committed to the annual issue of US News and World Report that ranks educational institutions according to the their students' standardized test scores.

In Ivy League schools, a large percentage of Latinos and blacks are foreign-born and don't identify with communities of color who are born in the United States. I'm not arguing that international students should not have access to US institutions. It is significant, however, that while in the '70s and '80s, blacks and Latinos entering through Affirmative Action were coming in from poor U.S. communities and were passionate about returning to those communities and lifting as they climbed. Currently, schools are more concerned about admitting people who have high SAT scores who will boost their status than recruiting leaders. Education is changing from an opportunity for students to explore and grow to institutions that are consumed with rankings. Education is becoming about providing credentials to obtain high-paying jobs rather than training people for a thriving democracy. (source: ZNET)

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