Confessions of an Affirmative Action Baby
There’s no way you’d been reading this — and I could not write this — if it weren’t for affirmative action. And there’s no way on earth I could have gotten accepted to fancy-ass schools including Columbia, Stanford, Chicago, UCLA and Berkeley — without affirmative action. Because I flunked basic English.
But, thanks to affirmative action, “undeserving” me got into all those fine ruling class finishing schools. And if you don’t like it, if you think my writing career cheated a worthier and wealthier young man out of his pre-ordained slot, well, f— you!
Now, a tiny opening into membership into the ruling class has been closed with a guillotine. Today, the Supreme Court issued its ruling banning any consideration of race in admissions to Harvard and the University of North Carolina — and, by so ruling, every school in the USA.
The ruling is ugly, cruel, racist and flat-out un-American — though possibly the impetus for correcting some decayed forms of affirmative action which are neither affirmative nor active. Stay with me on this.
Let me explain using my own story of escape from L.A.’s East Valley, the dead-end barrio of Sun Valley-Pacoima.
In 1968, UCLA held a test for “gifted” kids that would allow them to enter the university before they finished high school. By pure luck, I happened to have friends at Beverly Hills High whom I was going to meet to just hang out. I was told to meet them at UCLA where I found them about to take this early admissions test.
The test was well-advertised at Beverly Hills High, at University High and at a couple of other high schools where the morbidly wealthy send their kids. No one ever even mentioned the program at my school — then populated mostly by Chicanos and “Okies” (dustbowl refugees).
I had nothing to do while waiting for my friends, so I said, “Give me a test!” The surprised proctors reluctantly handed me the papers. And I aced it. At least on paper, I was a smart kid. But, my English wasn’t worth a can of spam. I stone-cold flunked the “Subject A” exam of basic grammar and spelling, a requirement to enter the University of California.
Apparently, Pacoima Spanglish is not Standard English.
But, after a call to my high school’s principal who explained, “That any of our students can speak English at all is a big deal,” a dean at UCLA waived the requirement, taking “affirmative action” to pretend I had passed the test.
And if you don’t like that, f— you again!
At my high school, all boys were required to take “shop” classes to learn to operate a wood lathe, draft blueprints and how to pick radishes (so we could be gainfully employed as permanent “braceros.”) At Beverly Hills and “Uni,” the kids had calculus and Advanced Placement Physics and French lessons — in France.
I couldn’t compete. But thanks to affirmative action, admissions gatekeepers looked the other way. (And, in 1968-69, with the planet on fire from Watts to Vietnam the prestige schools were bringing in kids they thought would be grateful enough to not make trouble. We proved them wrong.)
But even before today’s decision, a kid like me would have a tough time qualifying for affirmative action as the court’s Bakke (1978) and Grutter (2003) rulings gutted the core purpose of affirmative action: to give those without privilege a fighting chance to get a piece of the privilege. Instead, real educational handicaps were set aside for a crude concept of “racial diversity.” Schools stopped recognizing society’s crippling of opportunity for poor Black, Hispanic and White kids — and replaced it with approval of plans by the ruling class to put a little chocolate in their milk. “Diversity” became a head-count of skin tones.
The Ivy League loved those rulings — because they allowed the privileged to hold on to their privileges. So, a Barack Obama, with a PhD mom and a Harvard economist dad, counts as “diversity.” No one questions that Obama was a stellar student, but it was hardly creating an opening in the ruling order to admit another “legacy” student. As today’s decision notes, Harvard’s final “lop” as they call it for choosing students has only four criteria. Number one is “legacy status” — i.e. is daddy a member of the club. Then there is that other “legatee” George W. Bush, who famously crowed that he got into the elite Phillips Academy Prep School and admitted to Yale despite his abysmal grades. Here’s a photo of him giggling as he says, “As I like to tell C students. You too can become President!”
I would note that the plaintiffs in today’s case did suggest that eliminating “legatee” spots — almost all reserved for the white and wealthy — would radically increase racial diversity. I’m sure the ruling class was more than thrilled that the Court did not ban the legacy grift that preserves the mating rituals of the scions of the rich.
I remember a dean of students at the University of Chicago telling me about the confidential phone number, “which we keep only for big donors to call if they need to get someone admitted.”
So the Right wing has come up with allegedly “race neutral” prescriptions for college admissions. By law, admission to the prestigious University of California campuses is principally determined by your “grade point average.” Sounds fair, race and class neutral. But an ‘A’ in an Advanced Placement class is worth 5 points, while an ‘A’ in other classes is worth only 4. At my school for pre-designated losers, we had only one single AP class — while Bevvy and Uni had dozens. A straight-A student at my school would lose a shot at UCLA to a Beverly Hills mediocrity loaded up with AP classes.
THE CLASSROOM CLASS WAR
American education is a war zone — where battlefield success is measured by the prestige schools you’ve attended, connections to the powerful and their wallets and their Rolodexes, to their “networking opportunities,” and entry into the gene pool for the landlords of our planet. “Getting in” — is everything. Getting left out is everything too, if you’re left out. Ask Steve Paddock. (We’ll get to Steve.)
In other words, it’s bigger than race. It’s about the war that cannot speak its name: class war. The ruling class doesn’t mind “diversity” if it doesn’t threaten their rule.
Today’s decision, like Bakke and Grutter, continues the unprovoked assault by the haves on the never-will-haves.
I recognize that the issue of class is going out of style. In those virtue-signaling lawn signs that say, “In this house, we believe that love is love, no person is illegal, women’s rights are human rights etc.,” nice liberal homeowners announce their blessing for same-sex marriage, for immigration, and a woman’s right to abortion. But as the great social critic Thomas Frank notes, there’s no place on those signs for, “In this house we believe every worker deserves a good union paying job.” Lost your job to NAFTA? Sorry, no more room on our sign.
In our long-overdue recognition of historic wrongs, we’ve left out the working class, especially the working poor. “Working class” and “working poor” is not, at least from the signs, an “intersection” of oppression.
One classmate at my sucky high school, Steve Paddock, impoverished son of an escaped convict, was a real math whiz. He didn’t know about early admissions tests. He ended up dumped into our local college. He was brainy enough to know he’d been cheated, watching the “legatee” mediocrities close the door in his face. And brainy enough to figure out the complex ballistics to kill 56 people in Las Vegas from a notable distance.
Not every frustrated white kid becomes a killer. But an awful lot of them will put on MAGA caps.
RACE, CLASS AND “NEUTRAL” ADMISSIONS TESTS
Let’s talk about “race” neutral admissions policies.
Elite schools put much value on “extra-curricular activities.” My daughter got into a top arts and film school with a scholarship for her portfolio and academic scores. She was talented and no doubt she deserved it. But how many 16-year-olds at my old school even have a portfolio? Mom and dad made sure she enrolled in weekend classes at the Parsons School of Design — and attended a deluxe private school to overcome her dyslexia. (The breathtakingly high tuition was paid by the government after we sued. How many kids can call on daddy’s lawyers to boost their educational opportunities?) And let’s not forget the private SAT tutor.
Now, consider my Associate Producer, the hip-hop artist Jevin Lamar. His “extracurricular activity”? He waited tables and washed dishes at a Steak & Brew in a Dayton, Ohio, dead-end zone. No one got him an internship with the ACLU, no French lessons in France.
Let’s not gloss over the fact that even the most privileged Black person faces brutal discrimination. A dark-skinned person with a doctorate is still likely to be shunted to subprime loans, to subprime neighborhoods, to subprime you-name-it. Racism is baked into America the way flour is baked into bread. To ignore it is to cruelly continue it.
Racism has stained America up and down the economic totem pole. It cannot be ignored and requires correction. By shifting affirmative action’s focus to income, we give a hand up to the wounded of the class war and will assist most students of color who are the legatees of systemic impoverishment.
MY LIFE AS A “LESS-QUALIFIED” STUDENT
“Affirmative Action” is slandered as a system to make room for people who don’t deserve to be there; students, like me, who are “less qualified” by dint of a lower test score, an embarrassing lack of advanced placement classes. Kind of like requiring every NBA team to have one player in a wheelchair.
Affirmative action is not an attack on Meritocracy, on letting the swiftest win. But when the starting gun shoots a hole in one runner’s leg, it’s not a fair race. But we can’t heal the wounds of class war simply by balancing out the runners’ by skin tone.
My white daughter had privileges my African-American AP could have never dreamed of. But then, what opportunities are denied Obama’s kids? Would their inclusion on a school roster indicate “diversity”?
One solution comes, surprisingly, out of Texas. University of Texas admits students in the top 10% of their graduating class — a good step toward leveling out differences of both race and class.
And how has affirmative action worked out?
I can tell you only about the case of this author who flunked basic English.
I was given an “undeserved” slot at a top university, and given the elite’s secret code that let me into libraries stacked with great literature. I somehow ended up, despite my lack of merit, with a string of New York Times bestsellers and designation as the Patron of Trinity College Philosophical Society, an honor previously held by Jonathan Swift and Oscar Wilde.
However, for years, until the miracle of “spell check,” my editors tore their hair out over my East LA spelling.
I suppose you could say that I took the place of a more deserving Phillips Academy Prep School grad — some privileged son of a Bush.
I hope I did.
Greg Palast (Rolling Stone, Guardian, BBC) is the author of The New York Times bestsellers, Billionaires & Ballot Bandits and the book and documentary,
The Best Democracy Money Can Buy. His latest film is Vigilante: Georgia's Vote Suppression Hitman