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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


'Affirmative Action for Rich White Kids'

...doesn't exist.

October 24, 2018

There is no such thing as “affirmative action for rich white kids.”

Everyone has their bugaboos and this particular phrasing is one of mine. It reappeared recently in an article at The Atlantic by Saahil Desai titled, “College Sports Are Affirmative Action for Rich White Students.” 

Desai identifies the fact that 65% of Ivy League and 79% of the New England Small College Athletic Conference (Williams, Amherst, et al…) athletes are white, calling this “a quiet sort of affirmative action for white kids.”

While there’s little doubt that sports like crew, fencing, field hockey, and lacrosse provide additional avenues for white kids to gain admission to elite institutions, not to belabor the obvious, this has nothing to do with affirmative action.

Originally conceived as a way to redress centuries of systemic discrimination -- by recognizing the perpetuation of privilege when it comes to college admissions (particularly elite colleges) -- since the California v. Bakke decision, affirmative action can only be used to “enhance student diversity.”

This rationale was reaffirmed in the 2016 Fisher v. University of Texas decision by a 4-3 margin, but it seems almost inevitable that an increasingly conservative court will get another whack at the law in the not-too-distant future, perhaps eventually weighing in on the present case brought by the Students for Fair Admissions against Harvard University claiming discrimination against Asian American students.

The attorney for the plaintiffs in the case says “the future of affirmative action is not on trial,” except that the future of affirmative action is totally on trial.

For now, though, the status quo reigns. Redress historic discrimination or promote diversity, tomat-o/tomat-oh in my book. It’s a win win.

Either way, the idea that college sports is affirmative action for rich white students does not follow. Twenty-percent of all students at Harvard are athletes, 15% at Yale. Athletes are not close to underrepresented

Unless having impressively broad shoulders (aka the Winkelvoss twins, varsity crew/Harvard) is a criteria for diversity, affirmative action for athletes makes little sense.

The very nature of the system of admissions for elite institutions such as those in the Ivy League privilege white students.[1] This has always been the case. Incoming classes that looked a little too Jewish led to the 1926 establishment of the SAT in a (mistaken) belief the superior “Nordic genetic stock” would score better, allowing Princeton and Yale to discriminate legally against Jews. 


To this day, standardized test scores are highly correlated with household income which is correlated with race. Attending a prestigious prep school – primarily the province of white students – offers a leg or two up in the race. Legacy admissions play an additional role in advantaging white students, not to mention legalized bribery – err…targeted donations – as in the case of the $2.5 million Charles Kushner gave to Harvard in advance of his son Jared’s matriculation.

Sports are simply another route toward preferential admissions for rich white kids. For non-marquee sports, especially for children from well-resourced backgrounds, the benefit of additional coaching or being able to produce a “portfolio” in order to get noticed by a school all play a role in advantaging rich white kids.

Calling this “affirmative action for rich white students” is an attempt by people who do support affirmative action to tag groups who do not support affirmative action for the sake of diversity with hypocrisy, but this just isn’t accurate. Privileging legacy admissions, elite prep matriculation, and also a varsity letter in fencing isn’t hypocritical.

It’s entirely consistent. They’re against affirmative action in all its stripes because they’re in support of a field that’s titled toward rich white kids.

Another unfortunate byproduct of this framing is that it suggests that all admissions are a game where each individual uses whatever they can to their advantage. Under this notion, fencing and crew are the trick for white kids. For minority students then, it’s the color of their skin.

This reinforces the bigotry which animates some opposition to affirmative action by suggesting the reason students were admitted was their minority status, as opposed to them being qualified as they are.

If one is in support of affirmative action, “affirmative action for white kids” distracts from and devalues the larger principles at stake.

Unfortunate framing aside, Desai’s article makes an important point about the rather unequal nature of how one gains admission to these elite institutions. They are no meritocracy.

You won’t hear me offering a robust defense of those systems partly because no matter their intentions, they primarily reinforce existing inequalities. For example, Yale enrolls more students from the top 1% of household incomes than those from the bottom 60%.

Harvard ranks 2069th in “economic mobility,” the percentage of students who move from the bottom 40% to the top 40%. 

This is why I recently swore to myself I was never going to write about the Ivy League again. They are a distraction from the real issues we face in higher education, an anomaly with little salience to the lives most of us live.

But sometimes, you just gotta scratch that itch.




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