A Particularly Cheap White Whine: Racism, Scholarships and the Manufacturing of White Victimhood

Consider a few things that have happened in the past month-and-a-half, in no particular order: First, comedian Michael Richards goes on a racist tirade at an L.A. comedy club, screaming the n-word at two black audience members, over and again for several minutes. Then, white students at four entirely different colleges dress up in blackface or throw “ghetto” parties, at which they mock low-income African Americans; next, a group of Muslim clerics are thrown off a plane because passengers get nervous after seeing them engaged in evening prayers prior to boarding their flight; and finally, New York police fire fifty shots at a group of unarmed black men, for no apparent reason, killing one who was due to be married the next day.

Oh, and then there is this: in spite of the above-mentioned events, the President of the College Republicans at Boston University, announces that race-based scholarships for people of color are the “worst form of bigotry confronting America today,” demonstrating the desperate need for BU to require a course in “Getting Some Perspective, 101,” for all incoming first-year students.

In response to this most horrible of racist practices, the campus GOP has announced its plans to offer a “Caucasian Achievement and Recognition Scholarship” for deserving white students. According to the head of the group, the scholarship is not being offered to help whites, per se, but rather, to point out the unfairness and immorality of “racial preferences” in American society. Merit, rather than race, should determine scholarships, they insist.

Yet upon close examination–indeed, even a cursory one for that matter–it becomes apparent that the arguments made against race-based scholarships, whether at BU or elsewhere, fail to demonstrate even the most rudimentary flirtation with intellectual honesty.

To begin with, and to place things in some perspective before getting into a larger philosophical discourse about race-based scholarships on principle, a few things should be noted. First, although white students often think that so-called minority scholarships are a substantial drain on financial aid resources that would otherwise be available to them, nothing could be further from the truth. According to a national study by the General Accounting Office, less than four percent of scholarship money in the U.S. is represented by awards that consider race as a factor at all, while only 0.25 percent (that’s one quarter of one percent for the math challenged) of all undergrad scholarship dollars come from awards that are restricted to persons of color alone (1). In other words, whites are fully capable of competing for and receiving any of the other monies–roughly 99.75 percent of all the bucks out there for college. But apparently, that’s just not good enough for the likes of the BU Republicans. One quarter of one percent of all scholarship money, and yet that is the “worst form of bigotry confronting America today.” The suggestion would be laughable were it not so sad; so indicative of a fundamental break with the ability to think critically and logically about the world.

What’s more, the idea that large numbers of students of color receive the benefits of race-based scholarships–something that is often supposed, usually with an unhealthy dose of white racial resentment–is also lunacy of the highest order. In truth, only 3.5 percent of college students of color receive any scholarship even partly based on race, suggesting that such programs remain a pathetically small piece of the financial aid picture in this country, irrespective of what a gaggle of reactionary white folks might believe (2).

The Myth of Meritocracy and the Reality of White Privilege

Additionally, to suggest that race-based scholarships are some unique and illegitimate break with an otherwise meritocratic system is preposterous. Fact is, there are plenty of scholarships that have nothing to do with merit per se, but about which conservatives say nothing: scholarships for people who are left-handed, or kids whose parents sell Tupperware, or the children of horse-breeders, or descendants of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, among many thousands of such awards (3). Apparently, it’s OK to ensure opportunity for members of these groups, despite the fact that none of them have faced systemic oppression before, but it’s the height of immorality to do the same for students of color, who have indeed faced explicitly racial obstacles in their lives.

Interestingly, even the scholarship considered by most to be the very model of merit-based reward, is rigged in a way that subverts pure meritocracy. The National Merit Scholarship, which is awarded to 15,000 students each year, based on pre-SAT (or PSAT) score, is distributed proportionately to representatives of each state, so that each state has the same number of winners as they have a percentage of the nation’s overall high school graduates (4). Because the quality of schools varies dramatically across states, average scores on the PSAT will also vary wildly, but students in Mississippi will always get their “fair share” even though many of them wouldn’t have qualified had they attended school in a state like Massachusetts. Yet never have conservative defenders of the merit system complained about this arrangement: after all, most of the winners are white, and it helps out folks in the red states whose school systems lag far behind those in the blue states, so what’s not to like?

Of course, on an even more basic level, to complain about so-called unfair preferences for students of color, be it in terms of scholarships or affirmative action policies in admissions, is to ignore the many ways in which the nation’s educational system provides unfair advantages to whites, from beginning to end.

It ignores the fact that the average white student in the U.S. attends school with half as many poor kids as the average black or Latino student, which in turn has a direct effect on performance, since attending a low-poverty school generally means having more resources available for direct instruction (5). Indeed, schools with high concentrations of students of color are 11-15 times more likely than mostly white schools to have high concentrations of student poverty (6).

It ignores the fact that white students are twice as likely as their African American or Latino counterparts to be taught by the most highly qualified teachers, and half as likely to have the least qualified instructors in class (7). This too directly benefits whites, as research suggests being taught by highly qualified teachers is one of the most important factors in school achievement (8).

It ignores the fact that whites are twice as likely to be placed in honors or advanced placement classes, relative to black students, and that even when academic performance would justify lower placement for whites and higher placement for blacks, it is the African American students who are disproportionately tracked low, and whites who are tracked higher (9). Indeed, schools serving mostly white students have three times as many honors or AP classes offered, per capita, as those serving mostly students of color (10).

To ignore this background context, and to award scholarships based solely on so-called merit, is to miss the ways in which the academic success and accomplishments of white students have been structured by unequal and preferential opportunity, and the ways in which students of color have been systematically denied the same opportunity to achieve. It is to compound the original injury and to extend white privilege at the point of admissions or financial aid awards, beyond the level to which it has already been operating in the lives of white students. In other words, to award scholarships on the basis of so-called merit, when merit itself has been accumulated due to an unfair head start, is to perpetuate a profound injustice. On the other hand, to offer scholarship monies to capable and high achieving students of color, who through no fault of their own have been restricted in their ability to accumulate “merit” to the same degree, is to ensure as equitable and fair a competition as possible, and to do justice in an otherwise unjust system.

But is it a Double-Standard? And is it Racist?

Despite the claim by the right that race-based scholarships amount to a double-standard (since scholarships for folks of color are considered legitimate, but white scholarships aren’t), in truth, the standard is simple, straightforward and singular: persons belonging to groups that have been systematically marginalized in this society, should have opportunities targeted to them, so as to allow for the development of their full potential which otherwise might be restricted by said marginalization. Special efforts to provide access and opportunity to such persons should be made, not because they are black, per se, or Latino, or whatever; but because to be a person of color has meant something in this country, and continues to mean something, in terms of one’s access to full and equal opportunity.

In effect, these are not scholarships based on race, but rather, scholarships based on a recognition of racism and how racism has shaped the opportunity structure in the U.S. Because race has been the basis for oppression, and continues to play such a large role in one’s life chances, it is perfectly legitimate to then offer scholarships on the basis of that category which has triggered the oppression. If people of color have been denied opportunity because of their race, then why is it so hard to understand the validity of remedying that denial, and its modern day effects, by also making reference to their race? After all, that was the source of the injury, so why shouldn’t it also be the source of the solution?

As for whether race-based scholarships for persons of color are inherently racist, the claim is absurd on the face of it, as is the notion that such efforts amount to bigotry (the position put forward by the BU Republicans). Bigotry is defined as “intolerance,” and the behavior or attitude of someone who holds “blindly and intolerantly to a particular creed or opinion.” Surely scholarships for people of color are not predicated on intolerance for whites, nor are they based on some kind of blind contempt for whites as a group. Rather they are rooted in the quite reasonable belief that people of color have been singled out for mistreatment on the basis of race, and thus, special efforts should be made to provide full opportunity to them, by taking account of the thing that had prompted the mistreatment in the first place. Even if one chooses to disagree with the premise that those who have been victimized should have special efforts made on their behalf, it would still be dishonest to claim such a premise was “intolerant.”

As for racism, it is typically defined in two ways, both as ideology and practice. In terms of ideology, racism is the belief in the inherent superiority/inferiority of one race to another, while institutionally it refers to policies, practices or procedures that have the effect of perpetuating systemic inequalities between the races, and which deny persons of a particular race equal opportunity with those of other races.

Clearly, race-based scholarships pegged to people of color are not based on notions of racial superiority or innate difference. They are predicated only on the notion that there have been real differences in opportunity on the basis of race, and that these opportunity gaps should be remedied to the greatest extent possible. Secondly, such efforts also fail the test of institutional racism. Student of color-scholarships do not perpetuate racial inequity–if anything they would have the effect of reducing it–nor do they prevent whites from enjoying equal opportunity. Indeed, without affirmative action efforts, in admissions and scholarships (and for that matter employment and contracting), whites would enjoy extra and unearned opportunity relative to people of color, thanks to pre-existing advantages to which we were never entitled in the first place. As such, to deny whites access to a miniscule percentage of financial aid awards is not to deny us access to anything to which we were morally entitled. We are “losing out,” if you will, only on something to which we have no moral claim: namely, the ability to keep banking our privileges, and receiving the benefits (be they scholarships, college slots or jobs) of a system that has been skewed in our favor.

Since scholarships would have been more equitably distributed between the races in a system without a history of institutionalized discrimination–and to doubt this is to assume that folks of color still wouldn’t have qualified for them, which means that one would have to believe in inherent inferiority on their part, which belief is the textbook definition of racism–to now steer scholarships to such persons is only to create a situation closer to that which would have existed anyway, but for a legacy of racial oppression. Even if one disagrees with the philosophical argument here, to label such efforts racism makes no sense.

Race-Based Scholarships as a Vital Tool for Equity

If anything, American colleges and Universities should be offering more assistance to students of color than is currently the case, including so-called race-based scholarships. And the reason is simple: namely, ongoing economic disparities between whites and folks of color, have left the latter in far worse shape, in terms of the ability to pay for college, than the former. Black students are far more likely than white students to come from lower-income families, and in fact, at selective colleges and universities (which are typically among the most expensive in the country, and those where students are most likely to receive some form of affirmative action), the average black student comes from a family with half the median income of the average white student (11). One fourth of blacks at selective colleges live in families that rent their homes or apartments, compared to only six percent of white student’s families, and whereas one out of six black students at selective colleges has spent some portion of their lives on welfare, only one in twenty-five white students has spent time on public assistance (12).

This racial disparity in economic background–and which race-based scholarships seek to at least in part remedy–has significant ramifications for the likelihood of students completing college, since the families of black students are only one-third as likely as white families to be able to pay the entire cost of their child’s education (13). On average, black student’s families are only able to cover about forty-two percent of the cost of college at the nation’s most selective schools, while white families are able to cover, on average, roughly seventy-four percent of the total cost (14).

And money differences such as these make a huge difference in terms of educational outcomes: studies have found that students from low-income families (who are disproportionately persons of color) are less likely to graduate from college than more affluent students, even when they are identically prepared in terms of having taken a vigorous high school curriculum and scored highly on standardized tests, with lower-income students at this level graduating at a rate of only sixty-two percent compared to eighty-five percent for similarly “qualified” affluent students (15). Even more telling, research data indicates that once economic status gaps between whites and blacks are fully accounted for, there is no statistically significant difference between white and black college graduation rates (16). This means that what gaps we see now can be fully explained by resource disparities, and suggests that financial assistance focused on that disparity would do much to close gaps in graduation and achievement between the two groups. On the other hand, in the absence of such “race-based” assistance, students of color would graduate in even smaller numbers, much to the detriment of equal opportunity.

However the College Republicans at Boston University may seek to spin it, make no mistake, the effort to end affirmative action, whether in terms of admissions or scholarships, will have an undeniable impact: it will mean fewer opportunities for students of color, irrespective of their true abilities; it will mean that even highly capable students will be locked out of opportunities, due solely to the disadvantages they have inherited due to racism. And it will mean that colleges will become increasingly populated with white students whose SAT scores might be mightily impressive, but whose moral and ethical compasses, to say nothing of their understanding of the real world, leave something just as mighty to be desired.


(1) U.S. General Accounting Office, 1994. “Information on Minority Targeted Scholarships,” B251634. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, January.

(2) Stephen L. Carter, “Color-Blind and Color-Active,” 1992. The Recorder. January 3.

(3) National Scholarship Research Service, 2002. The Scholarship Book.

(4) Alan Grob, 1994. “Geography: The Invisible Preference,” Reconstruction. Vol.2 No.3.

(5) Judith Blau, 2004. Race in the Schools: Perpetuating White Dominance? Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Press, 204.

(6) Gary Orfield, et al. 1997. “Deepening Segregation in American Public Schools: A Special Report From the Harvard Project on School Desegregation,” Equity & Excellence in Education. 30: 5-24; Valerie Martinez-Ebers, 2000. “Latino Interests in Education, Health and Criminal Justice Policy,” Political Science and Politics. September.

(7) Linda Darling-Hammond, 1998. “Unequal Opportunity: Race and Education,” Brookings Review. Spring: 31.

(8) Michael K. Brown, et al. 2003. Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society. Berkeley: University of California Press: 111; Jawanza Kunjufu, 2002. Black Students, Middle-Class Teachers. Chicago: African American Images: 57-58.

(9) Rebecca Gordon, 1998. Education and Race. Oakland: Applied Research Center: 48-9; Claude S. Fischer, et al. 1996. Inequality by Design: Cracking the Bell Curve Myth. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press: 164-5; Leonard Steinhorn and Barbara Diggs-Brown, 1999. By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Race. NY: Dutton: 47.

(10) Gary Orfield and Susan Eaton, 1996. Dismantling Desegregation. NY: New Press: 68.

(11) Douglas Massey, et al. The Source of the River: The Social Origins of Freshmen at America’s Selective Colleges and Universities. Princeton University: 2003: 42.

(12) Ibid

(13) Ibid, 43.

(14) Ibid, 156

(15) Carnevale, Anthony and Stephen J. Rose, 2003. Socioeconomic Status, Race/Ethnicity, and Selective College Admissions. Century Foundation: March: 14

(16) Dalton Conley, 1999. Being Black, Living in the Red. University of California Press.

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