When the University of California Southern Branch was established in the 1920's, it wasn't immediately apparent that it was going to have problems dealing with the socially-constructed political notion of "race." In fact, Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity and Delta Sigma Theta sorority chapters appeared on the campus the very same year "the twig," as it was nicknamed, conferred its first undergraduate degrees. Four years later, in 1927, Ralph Bunche (the renowned African-American who eventually won the Nobel Peace Prize) was valedictorian of his graduating class there. So what happened at this school--now known as U.C.L.A.--to result in an incoming freshman class of 4800 students in 2006 with only ninety-nine African-Americans? That amounts to just a hair above two per cent. Out of all the potential students in the United States. Two per cent of the incoming class. Every time I say it or write it or even think it, my head shakes automatically, as if I'm trying to jar the math cells in my brain, which have never been overly proficient and must surely have finally dimmed out unexpectedly and entirely now. Hmmmph.
I might have missed this information in that I don't get around the blogosphere much any more and that used to be where I got my news, by and large. But Friday, one of my colleagues mentioned it casually in passing and I've been gasping ever since. What?! I keep saying like the poor befuddled student in "Pulp Fiction" just before he gets shot by the hit man because he keeps saying "What?"
What?! Ninety-nine out of 4800? What?! Does not compute. Does not compute...
Not surprisingly, the chancellor of the university, along with the faculty, the administration, the students, and the alumni are all calling the situation a "crisis." Well, no kidding. Garbage stinks, even fresh garbage, and this blatant manifestation of institutionalized oppression in the name of racism is far from fresh. I remember one time in my childhood how shocked we all were, standing around the kitchen in the giant old house we had just moved into, when several sizable rats leapt out from under the sink all at once as the cupboard door was opened. Looking back, there's no way a house that big and that old wouldn't have rats, but we were all still shocked.
The situation is being blamed on Proposition 209, the constitutional amendment passed nine years ago in California to prohibit public institutions from discriminating on the basis of race, sex, or ethnicity. It's so obviously racist as to be embarrassing even to generally oblivious White folks. But it passed with 54% of the vote. Ain't power grand? And here we are with exactly the kind of result that was intended: shutting African-Americans off from the benefits privileged people have always been able to take for granted.
Well, gosh, say those who support Proposition 209 (which has been doggedly ignored by many private institutions and employers and the subject of a number of lawsuits), what could be more fair than letting quantifiable merit decide everything--right? Yeeeeaahh...on the surface...but there are several glaring problems with this practice.
First of all, quantifiable merit is not in and of itself all it's cracked up to be as a performance predictor, which is well recognized by college decision-makers. I mean, I've got a fairly good brain (for example) and handily dispatched most of my Ph.D. level courses, but I only scored 500-something on the math section of the GRE (the graduate-level standardized exam typically used to determine admittance to grad school). Was that good enough to get me into FSU? Apparently. Because my verbal score was pretty high. But let's face it now, there are people who manage to hit 1400 with their combined scores. So if FSU hadn't taken into consideration my straight A's at the Master's level, my maturity (simply for being born earlier than others), and what they called my "creativity" (a very non-quantitative commodity), I would have never made the cut.
So, what's wrong with that? If we're only going to be educating the creme de la creme (oui?), then other folks--of whatever skin tone--will simply not be educated...or employed...or whatever.
But wait. How did the creme de la creme get to be that? Are they all just born geniuses? Actually, even a genius who doesn't get a good solid preparatory education is not going to fare well when the die is cast.
When I transferred from one middle school to another, for example, I told my school advisor that I didn't like math (even though I had been taking advanced math at my old school). The advisor, probably in view of the fact that I was a girl and therefore, of course, not a "math mind," said, "Okay. Just take chorus instead." I never took another math course until I faced statistics in graduate school. And while I passed it--somehow--I couldn't understand it because I had no context into which to put the information. I was taking third year Spanish, as it were, after skipping the first two years. Memorizing the syllables might get me through the course, but I wasn't learning the language and wouldn't use it after the fact.
How does this story relate to Proposition 209? Well, if I'd been a boy back there in middle school, the advisor would more than likely have said, "Look, you don't have to like math. Just learn it. You're going to want to go to college one day and you won't be able to pass the SAT if you don't know math." And I would have taken it and been prepared when the time came years later for me to ante up in grad school. But I wasn't, all because I was born with one set of genitalia instead of another. And sex, if you'll recall, is one of the factors they can't discriminate against any longer in California.
Still, I didn't start out talking about gender, did I? No, but it's the same dynamic. Public elementary, middle, and high schools in poor neighborhoods tend pretty graphically to be so underfunded and loaded with social problems of all kinds due to poverty and its attendant miseries that even a genius might be hard put to wind up well enough educated to compete with those who don't live in poor neighborhoods. And this would be only a class issue, rather than a race issue, except that African-Americans and Latinos are far and away more likely to live in abjectly poverty-stricken locations and be "educated" in settings that would drive White folks into the suburbs, which is exactly where they have gone.
So little Jamal and little Maria reach college age, but not necessarily college capability. And, because they haven't been prepared to compete, they are summarily excluded, no matter how bright they may actually be, given half a chance and a modicum of assistance. How handy for the White kids who have not only had the necessary educational preparation, but have a clearer path since they're virtually the only ones on it.
Of course, Proposition 209 doesn't seem to keep the star African-American athletes out of U.C.L.A., even though only 27% of them manage to graduate (a rate even lower than Louisiana State). And one can only be glad that young White men like George Bush will still get into Harvard and Yale, just as he did (even with his C+ grade point average), because they sure as hell wouldn't get into a school where quantified merit made the decision. And then where would we get our future leaders?