The recent revelation that the Trump administration plans to target discrimination against whites in higher education made me think of crowded parking lots and the 100-meter dash in the summer Olympics. Strange, perhaps, but let me explain.
When I was researching my 2003 book, "Reverse Discrimination: Dismantling the Myth," I came across several metaphors that help to put the controversy over affirmative action into a larger context. Conservative opponents of affirmative action in college admissions typically argue that the grades and test scores of non-Asian students of color are lower than those of whites and Asians. This, they continue, "proves" that less qualified blacks and Latinos took seats that should have gone to more qualified whites or Asians. Many individual whites are certain that they would have gotten a coveted seat at a selective school if it weren't for affirmative action.
To use a sports metaphor, these affirmative action critics wrongly see the admission process like the 100-meter dash. As long as the runners stay in their lanes, whoever gets to the finish line first is the undisputed winner. This is both observable and quantifiable (like test scores) and there is rarely any debate about the outcome of these races.
But the admissions process is more similar to figure skating with a great deal of subjectivity and frequent disagreements about who actually won. The physical strength of one skater must be balanced against the grace of another. Multiple judges determine the winner, and they can disagree for a wide variety of reasons.
Similarly, college admissions officials consider a wide variety of qualities in addition to grades and test scores, including athletic and musical ability, extra-curricular activities, legacy status, geography, type of high school attended, economic status, overcoming adversity and, of course, race. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that race can be considered as one of many factors as long as it is not the dominant factor. Definitions of who is qualified are changing. How different committees balance all of these legitimate criteria can vary greatly.
The white, highly-qualified son of one of my neighbors applied to both Harvard and Yale several years ago. Even though his father had attended Yale, he was rejected by Yale but accepted by Harvard. Who knows what went on behind the scenes in the admissions committee discussions. Using only grades and test scores to determine whether a particular selection is fair or not is inadequate.
Many white men who are not accepted to the school of their choice wrongly feel that they would have been accepted if it weren't for affirmative action. This brings us to the parking lot metaphor. Imagine a driver who is desperately trying to find a parking spot in a crowded lot at the local mall just before Christmas. After driving around for 20 minutes, she finally sees a spot only to find that it is a handicapped parking space. "Darn, if it weren't for the handicapped, I could have parked here."
Of course, the reality is that one of the hundreds of other drivers also looking to park probably would have taken the space if it weren't handicapped-designated. The problem is that there are too many drivers and not enough parking spaces.
The same is true for admission to selective colleges. More than 31,000 people applied for admission to Yale last year, but fewer than 2,000 (about 6 percent) were accepted. Harvard only accepts 5 percent. The chances of being accepted to a selective institution, including for students with outstanding grades and test scores, would be small even if affirmative action didn't exist. Like my neighbor's son, it's hard to know why an individual person was or was not accepted to a particular school.
After reviewing the empirical studies and reports issued in the late 1990s and early 2000s for my book, I concluded that only a tiny number of whites are hurt by affirmative action in the college admissions process. I'm certain that this is still the case today.
Conservative critics vastly exaggerate the numbers to play on white fears that they have become victims of so-called reverse discrimination. Whites and Asians are still overrepresented among bachelor's degrees recipients when compared with their numbers in the general population. Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans are still underrepresented. The gap has narrowed since the 1970s, but it remains significant. Whites are somewhat less privileged now than they were in the past, but this doesn't make them victims of racial discrimination.
Fred L. Pincus is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County; his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.