Content of Whose Character?: Race, College Admissions and the Myth of Merit

Published as a ZNet Commentary

One thing can be said for conservatives: they are nothing if not unoriginal. This truism was driven home yet again recently when I found myself in a debate over affirmative action with such a person, who insisted that folks like me, by virtue of our support for the concept, had abandoned the vision of Martin Luther King Jr.

King, I was assured for what seemed like the 2,345th time would have opposed affirmative action — what my detractor called “racial preferences” — because he believed that people should be judged on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.

Faced with yet another person claiming to be the ideological soul mate of a man they likely despised when he was alive, I decided to gloss over the fact that King had endorsed the concept of affirmative action as early as 1961, and again in 1963, 1965 and 1967. I also chose not to belabor the point that affirmative action doesn’t actually judge anyone on the basis of skin color, but simply seeks to ensure that persons of color who otherwise might be overlooked for educational and job opportunities get a chance to prove themselves.

Instead, I decided to address the issue on the grounds favored by the right, which so seems to covet the “content of their character” line. So I asked plainly: What do the “merit” standards he endorses, and which people like him would prefer to see in place of so-called racial preferences — such as standardized test scores for college admissions — have to do with character?

Since racial score gaps on these tests are taken as proof that blacks and Latinos are less qualified than whites to attend selective colleges, and since critics of affirmative action insist we should return to “merit” admissions based largely on these tests, was he honestly suggesting that SATs, ACTs, LSATs and MCATs say something about a person’s character or lack thereof? More to the point, was he of the opinion that whites, by virtue of our higher average scores, are of superior character to black and Latino students?

It quickly became apparent that no one had ever asked him that question before; that no one had ever forced him to explain what correlation, if any, existed between his two vaunted principles: academic merit, as evidenced by SAT scores, and character. He had simply been allowed to assume such a correlation, absent even a scintilla of evidence. I suggested to him that even claiming standardized tests to be good predictors of academic ability was questionable enough; but to think there was a correlation between test scores and character seemed absurd on the face of it. He scrambled for a reply, ultimately arguing that high test scores were indicative of superior intelligence and that intelligence represents an element of one’s character.

Well, according to Webster’s Dictionary, the definition of character is, “moral strength, self-discipline, fortitude.” That says nothing about academic performance, or intelligence however defined. Indeed, how could it? The Nazis were led by men who probably would have scored highly on the SAT; so too those who designed Napalm, or sanctioned the slaughter of America’s indigenous populations. So too Ted Bundy, or the young white man with the 1350 on his SAT and a slot in the freshman class at Berkeley, who murdered a young black girl in the bathroom of a Nevada casino a few years ago.

So which is it? Should we judge people on the basis of character, or rather on the basis of previous academic achievement–no minor question, since the two have no necessary correlation to one another?

I, for one, would be happy to vote for character, but I doubt those who have misappropriated the concept from King would like where the notion leads. Because when it comes to which students have exhibited the most fortitude, one of the key elements of character, defined as “the strength to bear misfortune and pain patiently and calmly,” there can be little doubt that students of color and poor folks of all colors (who tend to do worse on the merit indicia favored by the right) would come out on top.

Which students, after all, have had to persevere against the odds more often: rich kids who attended the best schools and whose parents could afford tutors, test prep classes and other enrichment materials? Or poor and working class kids whose schools had substandard resources, less experienced teachers, and whose parents struggled to make ends meet? Which have had to bear the most pain? Whites whose membership in the racial majority allows us to go through life fairly oblivious to our own race and the role it plays in our everyday experience? Or students of color, whose minority status often reminds them that they are seen by many as outsiders, and who know of the negative stereotypes held about their group by the general public, usually by the time they are eight or nine years of age?

To ask the questions is to answer them.

For students who have faced obstacles of race and class to even partially overcome those obstacles and score, say, a 1000 (out of 1600) on their SAT says something rather amazing about their character. Despite having the odds stacked against them they refused to give up, they strove for excellence, and though they finished the K-12 race still behind their more privileged competition, they closed the gap nonetheless. For many, a score of 1000, 1050 or 1100 is far more impressive than a 1350 or 1400, when the latter was attained by someone who had all the breaks and opportunities going his or her way. This is especially true when one considers that black students who apply to elite schools come from families that, on average, have half the income of their white counterparts and are far more likely to have attended resource-poor schools.

If one starts a race three laps behind and finishes only two laps behind, is it not obvious that such a runner is objectively better than the one who hit the tape ahead of them? Didn’t they run faster, harder, with more determination? Didn’t they demonstrate character? Or do we simply reward the one who finished ahead, even though their ability to do so was largely the result of a pre-existing advantage, and would have obtained even in the absence of character altogether?

And what of self-discipline, that other aspect of character to which Webster’s refers? Could it be that blacks would here too bump whites from slots in elite colleges, if indeed the criteria for acceptance were the content of one’s character? Quite possibly: after all, blacks show far more restraint and self-control than their white peers when it comes to things like drug and alcohol abuse: the latter of which is a serious problem on American college campuses.

Although black youth and young adults are more likely than whites to have been approached by a drug dealer in the past month, they are less likely than whites to have used drugs in the past thirty days. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Centers for Disease Control, white high school students have higher rates of drug use for all drug categories than blacks, while blacks have the lowest rates. In fact, black students from the poorest neighborhoods, in schools where most students live in public housing, use drugs at a lower rate than whites of the same age and grade.

Additionally, whites 12-17 are nearly twice as likely as blacks that age to drink alcohol, 2.5 times more likely to have engaged in binge drinking (defined as having five or more drinks at one time) and six times more likely to binge drink regularly. Among young adults 18-25, whites are nearly 80 percent more likely to binge drink than blacks and more than three times as likely to do so on a regular basis.

Since drinking under 21 is illegal, and since one might consider law-breaking indicative of one’s character, it is also worth noting that whites are 70 percent more likely than blacks to drink underage, more than twice as likely to binge drink underage, and four times as likely to binge drink regularly, according to federal data. In fact, while 23 percent of whites between the ages of 12-20 occasionally binge drink, only 19 percent of blacks that age ever consume alcohol, let alone five or more drinks at once. In other words, whites are more likely to binge drink underage than blacks are to drink underage at all.

Whereas 1 in 12 whites between 12 and 20 years of age is a heavy drinker who consumes five or more drinks at a time at least five times per month, only one in 50 black youth fit this description. Among college students, whites are 2.3 times more likely than blacks to binge drink and four times more likely to do so regularly.

Perhaps this is why a recent study from Harvard found that schools with higher percentages of students of color tend to have less binge drinking, and those that are overwhelmingly white tend to have the most serious problems with alcohol abuse. Apparently, despite higher test scores and so-called “merit,” whites on these campuses lack that self-discipline so central to the definition of character.

One more reason to support affirmative action then: not only can it promote greater levels of racial equity, but now it appears as though diversity enhancement might also boost the net sum of character on a campus as well. Such a conclusion is made all the more reasonable when one considers the dozens of riots on college campuses in the past decade: almost completely white events, and over such earth-shattering matters as crackdowns on underage drinking or the outcome of a football game.

So by all means, let’s encourage schools to judge students on the content of their character. Doing so would be a great way to promote diversity and racial equity at the same time, along with cutting down on substance abuse and mass violence related to that abuse. Perhaps over time, whites would even learn to assimilate to the black norm of hard work and sobriety, and begin to “act black,” which certainly couldn’t hurt their academic careers or our nation. After all, we would all reap the benefits of character-based standards, and an end to the damage done by smart but pathological members of the dominant majority.

One Response to “Content of Whose Character?: Race, College Admissions and the Myth of Merit”

  1. Absolutely LOVE the arguments and content of this article! Bravo Tim!


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