High school senior Suzy Lee Weiss recently hit the national spotlight after writing a controversial letter to the Wall Street Journal titled “To (All) the Colleges that Rejected Me.”
In it, Weiss, who is Caucasian, mentions that one of the reasons for her rejection from an elite undergraduate institution is her lack of “diversity.”
“For starters, had I known two years ago what I know now, I would have gladly worn a headdress to school. Show me to any closet, and I would’ve happily come out of it,” she writes.
To continue, Weiss adds how “if it were up to me, I would’ve been any of the diversities: Navajo, Pacific Islander, anything.”
To call Weiss’ letter a racist rant would be going a bit too far, but the letter does reveal some distasteful thoughts coming from an out-of-touch young woman. And, most importantly, this whole situation highlights a great problem within contemporary American thinking about race: In her mind, growing up with business-owner parents, a standard education and white skin are disadvantages.
There is no debate that people of color face dramatically longer odds when it comes to economic subsistence. When examining statistics from 2009, the median net worth of white households was $113,149, compared with $6,325 for Hispanics and $5,677 for blacks, according to the Pew Research Center.
Just last week, BET founder Bob Johnson said the United States would “never tolerate white unemployment at 14 or 15 percent,” despite the fact that the rate of black unemployment has been consistently more than double that of white unemployment for the past five decades.
To the point of Weiss’ letter, education — universally hailed as the driving means of raising people out of poverty — also has a large achievement gap between races. According to the Pew Research Center, about 40 percent of Caucasians between the ages of 25 and 29 have a four-year degree, but the rate falls to 23 for blacks and 15 percent for Hispanics of the same age range.
Weiss is going to go to college. Despite how her letter portrays herself, she has been accepted to a number of other prestigious institutions that will provide her with the skillset to be a “successful” person. Meanwhile, the fact that far fewer black and Hispanic students have a four-year degree when compared with their white peers is a problem that is not getting better with time.
Affirmative action in education has been shown to be successful, and there is no question that minority students suffer without it. Just compare statistics from 1995 — the year the University of California elected to eliminate affirmative action — to today. In 1995, black students composed 7.3 percent of admitted freshmen at UC Berkeley. But, in 2012, that number was projected to be 3.5 percent. The same is reflected at UCLA, where the rate dropped from 6.7 percent to 3.8 percent.
The case can be made that minority students don’t get accepted without affirmative action simply because they are not qualified. But though there might be a sliver of truth to this statement, the dramatic correlations between race, wealth and achievement make it inexcusable to not help people of color receive the education needed to escape poverty, especially considering the fact that the United States’ problematic education system makes it difficult for many minority students to truly show their potential at school.
Affirmative action is an understandably controversial topic, but the original aims of affirmative action are often lost in the red-herring claims of the policy as a form of reparations and reverse racism.
The purpose of affirmative action in education is to provide minority individuals with equal opportunities by leveling an uneven playing field and giving children a fairer chance to succeed in school and in life. For one, it has been shown that children of college-educated parents, regardless of the parents’ prior histories, have statistical advantages for greater achievement than do the children of parents without similar educations.
With the deck already stacked against minority youth with aspirations of higher education, affirmative action is one of the few measures that contributes to genuine racial equality.
Yet affirmative action continues to be threatened in education. A case currently before the Supreme Court, Fisher v. University of Texas, aims to reverse the 2003 court case Grutter v. Bollinger, which upheld affirmative action admissions practices. A ruling could mean the end of affirmative action practices in public universities.
Hopefully, years from now, Weiss will realize her mistake in taking such a callous view toward racial equality in schools. Chances are, she’ll at least be extremely embarrassed by her immature words. Small cases such as this only go to show how far the U.S. has come and how far we still need to go.
Matthew Tinoco is a freshman majoring in print and digital journalism and comparative literature.