A Wise rethinking

A few weeks ago, Tim Wise came to Pomona College amongst much fanfare (not to mention the unanimous support of every student government in the 5Cs) to discuss race issues in the United States. His talk covered his theory of white domination in the U.S., and how affirmative action can help counteract this past by increasing diversity in the upper levels of society.

I strongly support the idea that we need to increase dialogue between races to understand the perceptions and experiences of each group of people. By choosing to either ignore the experiences of others or blissfully surrounding oneself with the views of one’s own race, one supports a culture of hostility and misunderstanding between peoples. That being said, there are a few places where I feel Wise could improve his argument.

Wise claimed that affirmative action was fair because “white folks have twelve years of affirmative action” under their belts by the time they reach college. Wise is obviously pointing here to the disparity in the quality of K-12 education received by different races. What is interesting, though, is that he did not make any mention of a program for improving K-12 education in low-income areas. Would it not be simpler to cut the proverbial Gordian knot and remove the need for affirmative action by improving K-12 education in low-income areas? Although it would take some time and a considerable amount of resources, the effects of improving the education of kids in poorly performing schools would remove the need for affirmative action and allow college admissions to be race blind and fair at the same time (because everyone would roughly have the same education). The need for improved K-12 education has been underlined by research done by Richard H. Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr. (found in their book Mismatch) that followed various students who went to university through affirmative action only to drop their desired major (usually in the STEM fields) because their K-12 education did not adequately prepare them for university. For example, Sander and Taylor talked with a black Dartmouth grad who said “people in my class had had science since grammar school, but I wasn’t even introduced to science until my sophomore year of high school… I had never developed the skills I needed to achieve.” Consequently, she changed from a STEM major to a humanities major. In addition, they compiled data that showed that black students at Ivy League schools are half as likely to finish a STEM major compared to whites, even though black students are slightly more likely to aspire to be a STEM major.

On a different, yet related, note, Wise could adjust how he frames his argument to take into account the experiences of low-income whites. Recently, there has been some noteworthy academic literature that shows a distinct similarity in the social problems of lower income whites and those of black and Hispanic minorities. For example, in his book Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010, Charles Murray studies the effects of the growing social and cultural divide between white classes. In addition to discussing how the upper class of whites have gained a large majority of the monetary and intellectual wealth in the US, Murray explains how the lower class of whites have, since the 1960’s, been facing oppressive social problems that are usually associated with black and Hispanic neighborhoods. Specifically, Murray uses Fishtown, a statistical construct, to show how the white lower class, like other low-income minorities, have been plagued by problems such as high crime, lower levels of education, illegitimacy, and joblessness.

In light of this research, the fact that Wise does not address this data is noteworthy. Unlike minorities, whites cannot use affirmative action as a social ladder, even if they come from a low-income neighborhood with dismal education, job, and life prospects. Because of this, Wise should acknowledge the greyness of social inequality by acknowledging the existence of different classes in each race thereby preventing the alienation of potential supporters of his cause.

All in all, although Wise’s argument in favor of increasing dialogue between races is sound, but by focusing on affirmative action as the sole catalyst of social equality he fails to address the root of the problem, namely disparity in K-12 education between upper and lower income neighborhoods. By improving K-12 education for lower income students of every race, we could remove the need to use affirmative action as a corrective force for educational inequality. Moreover, we could better prepare those lower income students with great aspirations to reach their academic goals. Although Wise is quite a controversial figure, this, I believe, is a solution that we could all agree on.

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