Students at Overwhelmingly White Universities are Missing out—I Know Because I was one of Them.

It's a myth that only students of color benefit from integration.

Photo Credit: Vanderbilt University

A recent episode of the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC quickly got at everything that’s wrong with the debate over affirmative action and the larger issue of race and education. The show featured Marvin Krislov, former general counsel at the University of Michigan when the Supreme Court upheld race-based admissions there, discussing the news the Trump Administration plans to challenge university admissions policies “deemed to discriminate against white applicants.” And then a Michigan grad called in to rant.

When I hear stuff about affirmative action my blood absolutely boils. It’s gotten to the point where if I meet an African American and they’re getting an MBA I go, ‘oh don’t tell me you’re going to the University Michigan.’  

At the core of the caller’s frankly racist comment was the assumption that a person of color doesn’t merit acceptance to a university, whereas a white person does. Krislov pushed back, making it clear that universities have an academic threshold that any student admitted must meet regardless of background. As he explained, affirmative action doesn’t allow unqualified people of color in, but strives to create a more diverse group amongst an already qualified field. Krislov also cited data suggests white women have been the largest recipients of affirmative action, not people of color. And yet, the caller’s belief that people of color are getting special favors at the expense of white people is widely shared.

Opponents of affirmative action misinterpret the idea of merit, but they’re also missing the academic and social value of integrated school communities. I graduated from a diverse high school before attending Vanderbilt, which in 2008 was still overwhelmingly white. A few months into college, someone who attended New Trier High School, a majority white high school in the town next to my hometown of Evanston, joked that Vanderbilt was “New Trier South.” He wasn’t far off. At that point, just 6.7% of students at Vanderbilt were Black; 6.2% were Latino.

Vanderbilt has since made great strides in making its student body more diverse, but when I was there, you could feel the lack of diversity both in the classroom and in campus life. I sat in classrooms where almost everyone was white. This inherently limited the depth of perspective that could go into a discussion and might’ve actually lowered the rigor. Additionally, social life was largely segregated. My classmates who’d only attended segregated schools were likely unaware of what they’d missed out on. My own experience at Evanston Township High School (ETHS), one of the most diverse high schools in the US, enabled me to build relationships and learn from people from other backgrounds.

I began to wonder how many white students at institutions like Vanderbilt would get in if they didn’t have elite high school educations, access to tutoring and economic security. I thought about how many students of color would get into top colleges if they were afforded the same advantages of their white peers.

Of course, demographic data alone doesn’t guarantee that a school is a bastion of inclusion. In my time at ETHS, classes were divided by academic tracks: remedial, regular, honors and advanced placement. While more diverse than Vanderbilt, my honors and advanced placement classes were largely white. Not long after I graduated, ETHS decided to get rid of honors humanities in order to increase diversity in the classroom. The new policy put any student reading at or above grade level in the same class, and gave extra support to students who were reading below grade level.

As Evanston Superintendent Eric Witherspoon explained at the time, using standardized tests to track students before they got to high school was effectively excluding them from advanced classes. Said Witherspoon: “The majority of these excluded students are non-white.”

This measure received mixed support amongst parents, but showed a commitment to an integrated learning environment. And better yet, it worked. Between 2011-2014, three school years after the measurement went into effect, Advanced Placement participation rates went up 19 percent for white students, 35 percent for black students and 78 percent for Latino students. On top of that, the number of students scoring a three or higher went up as well; 31 percent for white students, 98 percent for black students and 118 percent for Latino students. All three student groups benefited academically despite initial concerns from white parents that the humanities classes wouldn’t be as rigorous, another racist assumption that diverse classrooms wouldn’t be as academically intense.

Quantitatively, there’s no question that integrating classrooms worked at ETHS. But beyond data, creating an environment where students from all backgrounds interact regularly has social benefits, albeit ones that are challenging to categorize. Unfortunately, the integrated class setting ETHS actively created is something I didn’t get at the undergraduate level and that many privileged white students never experience. The Justice Department should be doing everything in its power to increase diversity and inclusion, not play the misguided reverse racism card.

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Freelance journalist Eli Horowitz an assistant men's basketball coach at Cal Tech and a former teacher.