Texas State University student Colby Bohnannon would like you to know, it’s hard out there for a white guy.
When looking for money for college, the Iraq War veteran claims he had a hard time finding any, at least of the scholarship variety. And this, he wants you to believe, is due to the lack of such awards for white men, as opposed to the presumably substantial funds set aside for students of color. So, frustrated in his quest for white male scholarships, he’s created one, under the aegis of his new organization, the “Former Majority Association for Equality.” Get it? As in, we white folks used to be the majority, but since we’re not anymore (at least in Texas), now we’re the ones being shut out of opportunity, and in need of some affirmative action.
FMAE’s scholarships, which will amount to about $500 each, will be awarded only to white men with 3.0 grade-point-averages. Why white women are excluded from his beneficence, and why he is applying a rather bizarre blood quantum test to the awards (offering them to anyone with at least one-quarter white ancestry), remain mysteries. Especially since it would take some incredibly brain-dead math to suggest either that white men alone had ever been a majority anywhere, since displaced by the dreaded “other,” or that those with at least one white grandparent are not still a majority today, even in Texas, where large numbers of Hispanics are quite recently connected to Anglos.
But what is perfectly clear, and not at all mysterious, is the fundamental absurdity — however ubiquitous it may be among white Americans — at the heart of young mister Bohannon’s claim of racial grievance. Indeed, his notion that he was unable to secure scholarship monies because all the dough was going to people of color — in other words, to suggest as he does that money for whites like himself is crowded out by scholarships for black and brown students — indicates such a fundamental ignorance about the world of higher education that it should likely disqualify Mr. Bohannon from attending college anywhere. There are supposed to be intellectual standards, after all, even for white men.
The Facts About Scholarships for Students of Color
Though I have written about this before — and no doubt will have to again, seeing as how white victimhood arguments tend to get recycled every few years — for Mr. Bohannon’s sake, and for the sake of those who think as he does, perhaps it would do us well to remember a few things.
First, it is simply false that scholarships for people of color crowd out monies for white students. 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 (one quarter of one percent) 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 scholarship funds out there for college. Although this GAO study was conducted in the mid-’90s, there is little reason to expect that the numbers have changed since then. If anything, increasing backlash to affirmative action and fear of lawsuits brought by conservatives against such efforts would likely have further limited such awards as a percentage of national scholarships.
Second, it is also false that large numbers of students of color receive the benefits of race-based scholarships. 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 (2). So when Mr. Bohannon walks around campus and sees students of color, he may believe them all to be wards of some race-based preference scheme; yet the evidence suggests that at least 96.5 percent of them received no race-based scholarship at all.
Additionally, to suggest that race-based scholarships can in any way explain Mr. Bohannon’s own inability to find funding for school is preposterous. There is an incredibly diverse array of scholarships available for all kinds of things, that have nothing to do with academic merit alone, but are tied to various aspects of a student’s identity: 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). Although affording college education is increasingly difficult for pretty much everyone — and on this I would agree with Mr. Bohannon — if he couldn’t find scholarship monies to help defer the cost, he frankly couldn’t have been looking very hard. For instance, it took me all of 30 seconds on Google (which I’m told the young’uns can access, even in Texas), to find several such awards for Iraq War veterans like himself, as with over 400 such awards, worth up to $5000 each, offered by the Horatio Alger Association, or others provided by the Military Officer’s Association, or, for that matter, financing available from the Army College Fund, or the Montgomery G.I. Bill. Indeed, veterans may be among the most favored groups in this regard, ever since Congress decided over half-a-century ago to ease the cost of college education for those who had served in the military.
Are Minority Scholarships Unfair? The Structural Reality of White Privilege in Education
But beyond the practical matter of just how minimal an impact so-called minority scholarships have in the real world of higher education finance, even the philosophical assumptions at the heart of Mr. Bohannon’s argument — and the whites-only scholarships he’s creating — are deeply flawed.
To begin, the claim that whites are being disadvantaged by minority scholarships, even in theory, ignores 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 (4). 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 (5). To point to minority scholarships as a source of unfairness that somehow tilts the opportunity structure too far in favor of non-white folks, is to ignore that white students are twice as likely as their African American or Latino counterparts to be taught by the most highly qualified teachers (in terms of prior preparation and specific subject certification), and half as likely to have the least qualified instructors in class (6). This too directly benefits whites, as research suggests being taught by highly qualified teachers is one of the most important factors in school achievement (7). To scream about the unfairness of minority scholarships is to ignore that long before the point of college admissions, 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 (8). 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 (9).
To ignore this background context 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. So although it is true that whites are excluded from 0.25 percent of the scholarship monies available for college, this cannot rationally be considered a disadvantaging factor in our lives, given the larger, ingrained and systematic advantages from which we benefit, and from which most people of color are excluded. The 0.25 percent of scholarships for students of color is literally a drop in the bucket compared to the latter.
Despite the claim that race-based scholarships for people of color 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 should have opportunities targeted to them so as to allow for the development of their full potential, which otherwise might be restricted. 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 the category that triggered the oppression. On the other hand, for whites in need, it is simply not credible to contend that their disempowerment has been due to their race. Rather, whites who are economically marginalized have been so marginalized in spite of their racial status. So think of the most disempowered group of whites in the United States: Who are they? Most would probably say those from the Appalachian mountain region, in places like West Virginia or Northern Kentucky. But are those whites — who indeed are largely cut off from the larger economic opportunity structure, and are culturally isolated as well — suffering because they have been the victims of racial subordination? Of course not. Whereas people of color have been specifically targeted for discrimination because of race, such has not been the lot of even the poorest whites. So as we seek to create greater opportunity for poor whites — and I know of no one on the left who doesn’t support such efforts — we have to recognize that creating race-based programs for such folks misses the source of their disempowerment altogether, and is therefore off the mark. Scholarships for Appalachian folk (including the roughly six percent of the region’s inhabitants who are black, and suffer from regional, cultural or economic oppression) would make perfect sense. But white scholarships as a way to get at the economic marginality experienced by low-income whites makes none.
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: Even persons of color from economically stable families (in terms of occupational status, education and incomes) continue to face obstacles on the basis of race, and these deserve attention and consideration by institutions of higher education. Even when families of color are solidly middle class, for instance, their children are far more likely to attend high-poverty and low-resource schools, are more likely to be tracked low, and, when compared to whites of comparable income, face ongoing barriers to equal housing opportunity. All of these factors translate to diminished opportunities based on color, not merely economics. In other words, to merely target scholarships to those who are economically needy — regardless of race — as many recommend in their rhetoric against minority scholarships, would be to ignore the way that non-poor people of color continue to face race-based barriers to achievement and success. And because of a history of unequal access to wealth accumulation, even middle class black and brown folks with good jobs and incomes find themselves in considerably worse overall shape than comparable whites, as scholars like Thomas Shapiro, Melvin Oliver, and Dalton Conley have noted. Unless schools or private organizations that offer scholarships can develop an accurate way to pinpoint the assets and net worth profiles of the families from which their applicants come, to use only indicators like income or parental occupation as proxies for need would be to ignore the chasm-like differences between the white and black middle class, and thereby disadvantage people of color even further.
Not to mention, more than two decades of research on academic performance — especially standardized tests — has indicated that even (and especially) for middle-class, highly academically inclined students of color, the fear of confirming widespread and racist stereotypes about their ability can depress performance, despite actual ability or levels of preparation, due to increased anxiety and stress. Thus, highly capable students of color may well be missing out on traditional merit based awards, not because they are truly less capable or talented, but because of the psychological effect of racism, as a social force, on their individual academic performance, due to the widely-recognized problem of “stereotype threat.” Thus, scholarships pegged to high-achieving people of color can help balance out the effects of such a phenomenon, ensuring higher education access for those who are just as meritorious as whites, but whose on-paper credentials may have suffered through no fault of their own.
While Colby Bohannon is not likely a bad guy, let alone a racist in any overt sense, his scapegoating of minority scholarships stands as a troubling indicator of how quickly white men like himself resort to blaming racial others for their personal struggles in life. Whether it’s affirmative action, or immigration, or so-called welfare programs presumably soaking up all the tax dollars, whites have, for forty years, made a habit of looking to those darker than ourselves to explain why our lives have turned out less satisfying than we otherwise might have liked. That this scapegoating emanates from a bunch who constantly criticize people of color for claiming to be the victims of discrimination — even when the evidence of that victimization is overwhelming — would be amusing were it not so pathetic. Sadly, in an era of white racial anxiety the likes of which we have entered these past few years, it’s the kind of thing we’ll likely be seeing more and more often, facts be damned.
(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) Judith Blau, 2004. Race in the Schools: Perpetuating White Dominance? Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Press, 204.
(5) 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.
(6) Linda Darling-Hammond, 1998. “Unequal Opportunity: Race and Education,” Brookings Review. Spring: 31.
(7) 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.
(8) 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.
(9) Gary Orfield and Susan Eaton, 1996. Dismantling Desegregation. NY: New Press: 68.