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Notes From an 'Affirmative Action Baby'

I am a product of affirmative action. I am the perfect affirmative action baby. I am a Puerto Rican, born and raised in the South Bronx … With my academic achievement in high school, I was accepted rather readily at Princeton and equally as fast at Yale, but my test scores were not comparable to that of my classmates. And that’s been shown by statistics, there are reasons for that. There are cultural biases built into testing, and that was one of the motivations for the concept of affirmative action to try to balance out those effects.

I had two immediate reactions watching this clip of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor describe herself as "a product of affirmative action" and "the perfect affirmative action baby." The first was intense recognition. The second was fear. Fear that opponents would use the distinguished jurist's words to distort and demean a beneficial policy that opened the doors to opportunity for millions. That it's nothing more than a racial quota system that slides undeserving and incapable minorities into slots that would otherwise have gone to someone white.

I was either a freshman or sophomore when I sat down with the high school guidance counselor at Raritan High School in Hazlet, N.J. and first confronted what Sotomayor did. "You see this number," he said? "That's your I.Q.," according to the battery of tests we'd all been taking. I don't remember what the number was. Yet what he told me next has stuck with me for more than 30 years. He told me that the low number suggested I wouldn't get into college. But he was baffled because my coursework and grades suggested otherwise.

A haunting future stared me in the face a couple years later when I got my SAT scores in the mail. By now, I'm a senior at St. Benedict's Prep School in Newark. But my heart sank when I learned that out of a perfect 1600, my combined score totaled less than 1000. My concern only intensified when my results didn't improve after a second attempt. I never cottoned to the argument that the aptitude tests are culturally biased, as Sotomayor and many experts profess. For me, the problem wasn't cultural. My childhood was spent mostly living in predominately white towns and going to predominately white schools. The problem was nerves. I simply don't test well.

Nevertheless, I was filled with the same gnawing feelings of inadequacy that Sotomayor has talked about. The same dread that those numbers, my race and my background would hold me back. Beth Clary was the kind person in the Carleton College admissions office who fielded my multiple daily calls back in 1984 and 1985. She assured me that SAT scores were not the only measure they considered for admission. That my grades, coursework and other factors would hold just as much weight.

Just about every wonderful thing that's happened to me since graduation 20 years ago can be traced back to my decision to go to Carleton. And it's all because the people at a small liberal arts college in Minnesota with a commitment to diversity as strong as its commitment to academic rigor looked beyond the numbers to give me a shot.

By Jonathan Capehart  | June 12, 2009; 3:11 PM ET
Categories:  Capehart  | Tags:  Jonathan Capehart  
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If the GOP tries to disqualify Sotomayor because she is the product of affirmative action they are screwed in the next couple elections.

Will the GOP ever get that they have to stop making issues about race, people of all races vote for the dems because the dems dont spend all their time talking about race, and abortion and gays for that matter.

Posted by: peteywheatstraw | June 12, 2009 4:02 PM | Report abuse

I have to say, after all these years, I still don't know what to think about affirmative action.

I know some very competent minority people who didn't really need a leg up, and some rather incompetent ones who never should have been admitted to the Ivy League grad school we attended together. In between, there were probably others for whom affirmative action made a bona fide difference.

I'm white, from a very education-oriented family, and have 3 degrees. My boyfriend, whose mom is very education-oriented with a similar number of degrees, is black. Although he attended a overwhelmingly white high school in an affluent suburb, he never bothered to apply to college; he says that, at the time, it just didn't seem like something worth doing. Now, he's doing well in his career, but the lack of a degree has definitely held him back.

Though I think about these things, I never have figured them out.

Posted by: Itzajob | June 12, 2009 4:05 PM | Report abuse

The problem was nerves. I simply don't test well.
And what you don't think some White students have the SAME PROBLEM??? So they would have the same problem getting into a good school to no?? Besides what has this to do with discrimination? Also what you are talking about happened 20 YEARS AGO... How long do some people have to keep using race as a crutch? Not to mention Asian students do better than White students.. why doesn't " cultural biases built into testing" hurt them??? Every person should be judged on their ability. For the government to use race to help some people while harming others should be ILLEGAL...

Posted by: sovine08 | June 12, 2009 4:13 PM | Report abuse

Wait, so you admit your problem is nerves, but claim you still needed affirmative action? Because white people don't suffer from test anxiety.

It's about time we stopped discriminating on the basis of race in this country and evaluated everyone---yes, even minorities---on the merits.

Posted by: arlingtonresident | June 12, 2009 4:20 PM | Report abuse

Sounds to me like, in a multi-cultural society, we really need say 3 tests with different "cultural biases" that are taken by everyone. People that are reasonably smart in one dimension will do well on their own biased test, but less so on the other two. Taking a composite score of the three (or 3 sections of a single test, more ideally) would give a nice overall view of that person's ability. The real geniuses, particularly those who are good at approaching problems from several angles, would do well on all 3 tests, which would tell a lot about them as well. As now, the tests couldn't be the be-all of admissions, since as the author points out some people are just bad test takers but can succeed well in other areas. It still would be a distinct improvement over the current one trick pony of the SAT's.

Posted by: clearbeard | June 12, 2009 4:34 PM | Report abuse

What exactly are the cultural biases in these standardized tests? Algebra is algebra. A vocabulary list is a vocabulary list, and everyone has to memorize the same one.

If black students in poor urban schools don't receive a solid enough education to be able to do algebra, or if more affluent white students can afford tutors to help them memorize vocabular, then that's a problem, but it isn't a cultural bias inherent in the test.

Posted by: Itzajob | June 12, 2009 4:42 PM | Report abuse

Affirmative Action was a program legislated to enhance for minorities in America their opportunity to have an equal chance at securing jobs. I for one am white who in 1974 wanted to teach. I graduated from college and had a prospect to teach history at one of our local high schools. At the last minute before school began I was called and told I had been replaced by a minority via affirmative action. It took me about 6 months to find a job teaching but I understood the principle and agreed with it completely. When I was about to retire with 30 years of teaching minority students began asking me in private if I thought Affirmative Action should still be employed. At that point I said the purpose of Af. Act. was to give a generation of minorities in America a positive chance at getting jobs. We are now closing in on two generations. When will the minorities say okay it is enough time and we should earn our jobs based on our skills.

Posted by: pechins | June 12, 2009 4:51 PM | Report abuse

I think that a lot of colleges take into account the whole student, grades and activities and recommendations as well as SATs. This is the case for all races. And in fact the combination of good grades (at a decent school anyway) and low SAT is considered better than the other way around. That was my son's situation (good SAT but mediocre grades), and he had a lot of difficulty getting into college as well as STAYING in college, because that generally means low motivation. High motivation and good work habits will always go a long way toward making a person successful, regardless of test scores.

I have always believed that affirmative action programs are good when run correctly, and necessary to greater or lesser degrees depending on the situation. There are still places (like fire departments) where the jobs are jealously guarded and passed down to relatives, where AA is clearly needed. Other places, it has been more successful and can be loosened. I'm pretty sure it has been abandoned for women for the most part.

I think personally that many of the white men I have known who say they were denied a job or whatever because of AA, well, it wasn't really true. Not that they are lying, more that the HR people lied to them about the reason they were not hired. Because it seemed easier than telling them another reason: "Gee, I would have hired you but they made me take this minority!" got them off the hook so to speak. Maybe this could be true in some industries but in a lot of the cases I knew of, there were hardly any minorities ever hired so it couldn't have been true.

Posted by: catherine3 | June 12, 2009 5:19 PM | Report abuse

My daughter is an affirmative action baby too. Are you interested in why I don't like it? She tested extremely well- 800 on the SAT critical reading (over 2100 overall) 5's on her AP exams, National Merit commended student, graduated from high school with honors. Yet when she was accepted to an Ivy League college early decision she struggled with the idea that she only got in because she is African American. I find it insulting and demeaning to her that somehow she is not capable of meeting the same academic standards as whites. Conversely why can't affirmative action be used to give a break to a poor white student who has overcome adversity? I find it fascinating that everyone assumes when you are black you are poor and underprivilieged (will the Obama girls benefit from affirmative action when they apply to college?)and need extra help to get into (and stay in college). My daughter was actually invited to attend a precollege summer program to help her prepare for college (I wonder if the white students were given the same opportunity). She didn't go and didn't need it-she finished her freshmen year with a 3.8 gpa-oddly it was her white roommate (a legacy admit) who nearly flunked out

Posted by: aeromom322 | June 12, 2009 5:29 PM | Report abuse

It has always seemed to me to be pretty straightforward- I am a tall, highly educated (3 Ivy League degrees, scholarship all the way. for what that's worth), white male, and I have to support the concept of affirmative action until I can look in the mirror and say I believe that I would receive exactly the same breaks if I were a female, or black, or confined to a wheelchair, or whatever.

Until I can do that (and my experience has included far too many cases in which I have seen both overt and subtle discrimination against "the others"), it would simply be immoral for me to ignore the fact that I was dealt a better hand than most.

Posted by: jhherring | June 12, 2009 5:39 PM | Report abuse

These things are so courageous of you, Mr. Capehart, and of Judge Sotomayor to say. Thank you for your courage and character, that say more than a number ever could.

Posted by: REClayton | June 12, 2009 5:53 PM | Report abuse

I must disagree with REClayton. Jonathan Capehart's comments were thoughtful, but those of J. Sotomayor seem quite the opposite. Nor do they even strike me as accurate.

I am a more than a little disappointed that President Obama, with his constitutional law background, would nominate a Supreme Court candidate whose oft-expressed views on this important subject are so facile and doctrinaire.

I think her brash statements have hurt the case for affirmative action a lot more than they've helped it.

Posted by: Itzajob | June 12, 2009 6:09 PM | Report abuse

All I hear about now, especially with the election of Barak Obama, is how poor white people are overlooked for incompetent black people.

I never hear this argument about the legacy students. No one complains about those set asides at colleges and universities.

Instead you hear about these random cases with the fire fighter or some white school girl that only applied to one college and assumed that she was passed over for a unqualified black student.

Perhaps we won't need affirmative action when white people stop using it as an excuse for every college denial letter or every promotion they didn't get.

The real problem in this country is that poor students who could really benefit from tutors don't have access to them. But there is no outcry for the inadequacies in the school systems either.

Posted by: wmwilliams14 | June 12, 2009 7:27 PM | Report abuse

I think Mr. Capehart overestimates the impact of his test day jitters. If he really believes his story is a positive argument for continuing affirmative action programs, then his IQ must truly be as low as his high school guidance counselor suggested.

Posted by: nlynnc | June 12, 2009 8:36 PM | Report abuse


You’re right about poor kids in bad schools not getting the support they need. They're not, and it's a real problem that needs to be addressed in an effective way.

However, Judge Sotomayor is not arguing that poor students are being inadequately taught how to do algebra. She's arguing that algebra itself is culturally biased.

Which is kind of scary, and hardly a persuasive case for the genuine benefits of affirmative action.

Posted by: Itzajob | June 12, 2009 8:57 PM | Report abuse

Your admission that racial bias had nothing to do with your test scores - you just don't test well - nevertheless entitles you to conclude that others will use Sotomayor's words to distort and demean? You make no sense. You said your race had nothing to do with it, that the fact that you lived in AMERICA, AMONG WHITE AMERICANS negated racial bias in your case. That is the whole point, Capehart. You were given preferential treatment even though the tests were not biased against you because of your RACE. YOU ADMITTED THAT.

Posted by: chatard | June 12, 2009 10:21 PM | Report abuse

My father was a laborer whose annual salary was $8400/year when he died in 1978. I worked and studied hard and with an SAT score of 1390 managed to graduate from Seton Hall University. I had trouble finding a job after graduation. I caddied in the summer and worked in a car wash in in the winter. My best friend is still at that car wash and has worked his way up to manager. One problem was that I didn’t own a suit. For job interviews I borrowed my brother’s suit who was two inches taller than I.

Finally I took the PACE exam for entrance into the federal government. I was so happy that I borrowed money for a new suit for the interview. I have since worked in the federal government for over 30 years, rising close to the SES level. One year after I took the PACE exam President Carter declared entrance exams to the civil service to be racist and discontinued them. I was too naïve to get the message and consistently voted as a tree hugging Democrat until President Clinton was elected in 1992. Since then promotions and advancement had little to do with talent and ability but meeting racial and ethnic quotas. The most egregious example was an individual who was targeted to be downgraded for incompetence, but later that year promoted to become my supervisor. But anyone who criticizes these policies is considered a racist.

Posted by: BabeintheWoods | June 12, 2009 10:31 PM | Report abuse

I am soooooooooooo tired of this stupid conversation. The worst part of Affirmative Action is that it's given every mediocre white man in America a built-in alibi to last a lifetime to explain why they have not done better.
It's the very presumption that absent AA all these mediocre white men would have gotten every job they've ever applied for is all the more reason to keep the programs in place.
They are so convinced... stunningly convinced for this day and age that OF COURSE they would have gotten the job if only there wasn't this other minority (minority=less qualified, naturally) applicant. What all these people won't admit is that even if affirmative action disappeared tomorrow, they would still believe they were unfairly dealt with if ANY minority applicant EVER got a job they wanted.
In the case of Sonia Sotomayor, I guess these losers think they would have graduated summa cum laude from Princeton, won the undergraduate prize for most outstanding scholarship, and been president of the Yale Law Review if only they had been given the "breaks" she got.
And Jonathan, if you think white kids with lousy SATs weren't getting into Carleton too, you are deceiving yourself. In white, it's called "giving a promising young student a chance based on measurements other than the SAT." When you're black... or Puerto Rican like me, it's called "Affirmative Action."
All these thwarted, highly deserving, highly qualified applicants whose dreams are dashed by inferior minority applicants have constructed a dream world for themselves, where black and Latino men get all the breaks. In the country I live in, the US, blacks and Latinos have higher unemployment rates, make less money, have shorter life expectancies, and less household wealth even at equal levels of education and salary.

Posted by: BorincanoDC | June 12, 2009 11:54 PM | Report abuse

How can a test be culturally biased? Well, I've experienced it. I'm from a foreign country and applied to universities in the US. I had to overcome cultural shock in order to take the SATs. Here is what I noticed:

Firstly, question format. In all my life I had never taken a predominantly multiple choice test. All the tests I'd taken required you to answer in full sentences. Multiple choice reasoning was alien to me, and I had to be trained to do it.

Secondly, subject material. A lot of the passages used in reading comprehension tests had to do with American or European history that had never been covered in my school's curriculum. Reading comprehension does not occur in a vacuum - you absorb meaning more readily if you are familiar with the subject. I remember being utterly baffled by a passage on the Carolingians because I had never heard of them.

Thirdly, linguistic differences. Though I am completely fluent in English, I grew up in a bilingual household in a country where most people are ESL speakers. You just don't get exposed to a lot of advanced vocabulary that way. My boyfriend learned more advanced vocab in two years at a fancy American prep school where people talked like an SAT vocab book all the time than I did in a lifetime of recreational (English) reading. (And he started out in a worse position than me due to having been schooled in French up to the age of 15.)

These barriers aren't insurmountable. By taking SAT prep classes and studying my ass off, I raised my score from a 1250 to a 1360 and got into a decent college. But the SAT claims to be a test of raw reasoning skills, unaffected by cultural differences, or studying. And that is a load of crock.

Posted by: kea_ | June 13, 2009 12:06 AM | Report abuse

Bravo kea. What a wonderful post. You explained succinctly what the problem is with so many standardized tests.

And BorincanoDC, I thought your post was excellent too. So many white people just don't understand what a built-in advantage they have in this world just by virtue of the color of their skin.

(P.S. - I am a white woman.)

Posted by: knuckleroad | June 13, 2009 12:55 AM | Report abuse

End this. Design a test that is equal and appropriate. Define IQ and design a test for it. Define criteria for success in university and test for it. This isn't something that needs to be debated; just do it. Do you really need validation from Princeton?

Honestly, I think there have been enough lies. Enough avoidance of our past. I think the black community should write and republish the history of America. Inform the mainstream/conventional-wisdom of our past and present. Be bold.

Before the black/white two-Americas paradigm fades into the brown America, there is a history that needs to be amended. I hope there is an effort within the black community to get it right.

The relationship between black America and White America is intimate and personal, and it has not been validated since emancipation. Since then it has resembled a violent, dysfunctional marriage. We mostly ignore each other, it's always controversial, and it sometimes comes to murder.

Our schools fail to treat the subject adequately, and we fail the expectation of striving for moral perfection given to us by our founders. We fail ourselves and our children.

Posted by: Super_Grover | June 13, 2009 12:45 PM | Report abuse

It amazes me that the GOP (or those who speak for it) continue to ignore the changing demographics in this country.

Obama put together what might be called a "coalition of the ascending" - young people, blacks, hispanics, the college educated, those in economic difficulty. These growing groups will decide elections in the future and the President won them all. Weren't Republicans when Obama carried Indiana? Growing Hispanic populations will put Texas, the beltbuckle of the GOP electoral strategy in play in the future.

What does the GOP talk about?

The first hispanic Jusice is a "racist". President G. H. W. Bush questioned such tactics yesterday.

Immigration - no ideas from the GOP other than arrest them all and march them to the border. Illegals don't vote - but their children born here will - and hispanic citizens see no reason to vote Republican.

President Obama? - He's a socialist, a closet muslim and was born in Kenya. The black helicopters are coming.

Health care? - Forty milion uninsured and the GOP has nothing but opposition to any new proposals to address the issue.

The GOP needs new voices to make it into a true center-right party with a chance of victory. The party needs to look forward not back to Reagan. Where will these voices come from? I don't know = but the country needs them.

Posted by: toritto | June 13, 2009 1:59 PM | Report abuse

"My test scores were not comparable to that of my colleagues at Princeton and Yale, not so far off the mark that I wasn't able to succeed at those institutions."

The correct phrasing would be "comparable to THOSE of my collegues."

It's one thing to be an affirmative action baby. It's another to be a PROUD affirmative action baby.

One implies a leg up--perhaps for the opportunity to return this favor through a life of service. The other implies opportunism, of mistaking generousity for weakness; of a belief system based on biting off the hand that feeds you despite a rapidly decreasing number of hands.

White people are dwindling in number and declining in power. Affirmative action will become irrelevant--because there will be noone to cut in front of except for a poor, insignificant, and politically powerless white minority.

And I suspect the law will proceed beyond that point--becoming the new Jim Crowe--except unlike Jim Crowe, affirmative action has no detractors that feel comfortable voicing their opposition.

Posted by: test10022 | June 13, 2009 2:45 PM | Report abuse

You, along with most of black America, seem to forget that Obama's mother is white. When you are born to a white woman, you are white, no matter what color the woman you marry is. Get your head out of his behind, and you will see that rather than nominate someone who is worthy of being on the Supreme Court, your man has nominated someone who he believes is in the minority. Why does she have to be known as the Puerto Rican? Why not just a woman who has been nominated?
I grew up in Newark, NJ. My cousin is the head priest at St. Benedicts, Father Albert Holtz. I lived in Bradley Court Projects until I was 11, and then I moved up to the Vailsburg section, which was supposed to be better. It was still Newark, and there is nothing you could say that would compare to what I lived over 45/50 years ago. You are so young, and you have never experienced Affirmative Action. Have you ever had a job taken from you and given to a black, unqualified person? No, cause you were probably the one who took my job to begin with.
When racism is perpetuated by your president, how can we ever expect it to end?
And, why not do a story on my tax dollars paying for the dog, the trip to Paris, the trip to London, his mother-in-law living in the white house? I could never in my lifetime afford to take my children to Europe, yet my tax dollars are paying for his children to see what mine never will. Unbelievable. I know for a fact the Obamas did not pay for the trip themselves, cause on a junior Senator's salary, they are lucky they could afford to buy food and pay their mortgage. That's why she had to work.
I will be writing a letter to the Editor of the Washington Post, asking these same questions, and hopefully, causing millions of Americans to think about who they put in office, and how he and his family are spending money America doesn't have.

Posted by: lizabethlomer | June 13, 2009 5:11 PM | Report abuse

hey lizz: you really need to chill out....and President Obama is YOUR President too.....and will be 'till 2017...get used to it....

Take some Malox for your agita...


Posted by: toritto | June 13, 2009 5:41 PM | Report abuse

"Why does she have to be known as the Puerto Rican?"

She is known as a proud affirmative action baby rather than simply an affirmative action beneficiary. This stance implies a racial as well as a political viewpoint, that will most likely affect her decisions.

Beyond this her exact race--be she Guatamalan, Mexican, Kenyan, Native American, Hatian, unimportant. It's her political viewpoint ON being an affirmative action baby that's being discussed; her exact race was never mentioned.

Posted by: test10022 | June 13, 2009 9:03 PM | Report abuse

Copehart, let us get real. You mean Eurocentric tests that would get you to law schools and other prestegious shchools are not skewed. What about employment and other hirirg practices even if you do good about the ideas of dead white men in centuries ago when your forefathers were in chains?

When you climb to the laders using affirmative actions, it is easy for you to say, "brother, work hard, I did and you can do it" Sonia is honest, but you are not honest. She is brave to say that she is the product of affirmative actions, so true that she even defied the laws of racism to become first Purtrican to be nominated to the supreme court. Simple honest won't hurt.

Posted by: xumaandiid | June 14, 2009 10:05 PM | Report abuse

While his problem were nerves and white people have those as well - the tests are culturaly biased - usually against African Americans and Hispanics. Asians for some reason skipped this.
I agree that people should be judged equally and for their merits; unfortunately, when tests are skewed to favor certain people - how is that fair? If we want all Americans to succeed; then we need to give them the skills to do so.
There are many learning programs giving skills to combat test taking anxiety - but not every person has the money to spend to send their children to these programs.
So, this is not a black & white issue. There are shades of gray.

Posted by: gjkbear | June 15, 2009 5:52 AM | Report abuse


I could never in my lifetime afford to take my children to Europe, yet my tax dollars are paying for his children to see what mine never will.

Honestly I don't feel the slightest bit of pity for your sob story.

3 RT tickets, $1500. $60/night for 2 weeks for 3 people at discount hotel, $840. $20/day for food from the grocery store, $280. $50/day to spend, $2100. Total? $4720.

Amount needed to save, per year, from 22 till 65 (your entire life) to afford this trip? $109. Per day? 30 cents.

The only thing preventing your children from seeing Europe are your misconceptions about how possible it is. Your kids could get a summer job and afford a European trip the next year.

Is it really Europe you want them to see or the inside a of a 5-star hotel?

Posted by: Overdenkotten | June 15, 2009 10:17 AM | Report abuse

Here is funny thing: in Russia educational researches determinated what modern tests are passed better by narrow-minded and less gifted children - the mediocres. Creative children shows same results, as low educated ones.

Hey, may be tests are in root of last decades US education lag?

If to believe IQ test - then I am smarter than Obama, and even smarter than Putin. Yet somehow I am not the president :)

Tests are cultural based and should be. If you try to make test based only on widely known international values and attainments - then you have got test best suited for people wich not interested in deep understanding of Hemingway (for example) and haven`t even read him, but have hear on TV somethere this name and some context with it.

Our ancesters, the educated ones, just century ago were able to quote less-well-known phylosophers tractates, most know at least two languiges, were able to dispute almost every theme from atique poetry to modern astronomy. Present day nation-wide "the brain" is considered top smart if he have read some Dostoyevsky in highschool and able to smoothly read his speech from telepromter or paper. And we are amazed while seen such mental giant.

Tests puts our education in cage. But if tests are ergonomical and so far justified - then tests should be deeply cultural based, or they will demonstrate "normality" rather than "intelligence".

Posted by: IWH_rus | June 15, 2009 11:01 AM | Report abuse

I also got into Carleton ('92) and did not have great SAT math scores or straight A's. I was, however, one of only a handful of students from Florida (and a white female). Carleton was at that time committed to diversity in every respect, including having need-blind admissions, and let people in of many races, backgrounds and parts of the country and the world. That isn't the same as affirmative action, which is the point Jonathan is making here. Diversity should be valued, and schools should not only look at students as raw numbers, but see the entire person and the value they would bring to the student body. That doesn't mean that one group is treated "better" than another--the largest percentage of the kids at Carleton were white, middle class Minnesotans.

Posted by: nwyatt-brown | June 15, 2009 11:15 AM | Report abuse

Affirmative Action can be for white students too!

I am a white partner in national recognized law firm and an affirmative action baby. I benefited from an affirmative action program that extended opportunities to students who were economically and socially disadvantaged regardless of race. I grew up in the suburbs with an alcoholic and drug addicted single parent. This resulted in me living in at least 23 different places by the time I was 14. The places included foster homes, homeless shelters, and houses that we would get evicted from every three months. I became emancipated at the age of 14 and remained in my last foster home until I began to put myself through college. Although I went to a state college, I had to work three jobs at once to pay for my tuition and college related expenditures. My grades would occasionally suffer resulting in an overall GPA of 2.8.

After four years of post college professional work I applied to law school in the evenings. My LSAT score was competitive but my college GPA was not impressive. However, I had a story of survival and tenacity. Only one law school, Seton Hall University School of Law in New Jersey, accepted me. However the acceptance was conditional. I was accepted into their Legal Educational Opportunity (LEO) program, what many would call affirmative action. However, acceptance into the LEO program was not an automatic acceptance into the law school. Seton Hall accepted about 70 students in the LEO program but required them to spend about six weeks in what I called the LEO boot camp. In order to get accepted into the LEO boot camp, you needed to have either a competitive GPA or a competitive LSAT score and a legitimate story that had to be verified. In the LEO boot camp we had to achieve certain grades and show the full time tenured law professors who served as our instructors that we were disciplined enough to handle the challenges of law school. Not all 70 LEO boot campers were accepted into the law school, only the ones who excelled. I was offered acceptance into Seton Hall Law School evening program that fall, graduated on time and passed the New York bar on the first try. Seton Hall’s LEO program opened doors for me that would have never been open had they not been thoughtful enough to extend their affirmative action program to economically and/or socially disadvantaged students regardless of race.

Posted by: NoFo | June 15, 2009 12:08 PM | Report abuse

SAT verbal tests are definitely culturally biased. We have a favorite family story about my brother-in-law on taking the SAT. My white southern army brat brother-in-law got a question on the SAT which asked for either the antonym or synonym of macintosh. Since his part time job was at a fruit & vegetable stand, he definitely knew what a macintosh was. It was an apple. But none of the possible answers included that. And since he was not from New England he did not know it was a raincoat.

Posted by: rit21042 | June 15, 2009 12:16 PM | Report abuse

Jonathan, I never realized we are about the same age as I too graduated from a mostly white high school in the mid 1980s. I too am African-American and was educated at top tier institutions (Brown undergrad and Georgetown MBA). I have always done well on standardized tests however, and comforted myself with the knowledge that I was just as qualified as those around me to be at the institutions I attended as I always scored above the shools' averages on the SAT and GMAT.

In high school, I applied to 4 Ivies, Johns Hopkins, and Rutgers and got accepted at all institutions, with Brown being early action. Yet I knew that some of my high school and college classmates (and their parents) wrote off my achievement as affirmative action. In fact, I felt guilty at my success, wishing that one of my high school classmates instead of me had been accepted at the institutions I was turning down.

I believe in affirmative action and Sonia Sotomayor proves that it is a valuable way of allowing the best and the brightest access to our finest institutions. It disgusts me that people would seize on her early affirmative action advantage as though it is somehow negative or disqualifying. But, given my own experience with the whispers and sometimes disparaging comments from classmates who dismissed me as an "affirmative action candidate" I can see Clarence Thomas's side of the argument too.

Posted by: otabenga | June 15, 2009 2:34 PM | Report abuse

'Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby,' by Stephen L. Carter, which is his 'nome de plumme' I think its a timely subject but not at this time, because to tell the truth the fight for civil rights for hispanics is not in this country. To be able to appreciate what these privileges mean you would have had to have been denied them first, what I gather Judge Sotomayor is saying that the doors that have been opened by those who lived and died so that one day we can look back and appreciate what we have all accomplished through the struggle. Yes, there have been all races that have joined in the struggle but when I look back and to see how far I have come its no mistaking that it is my history and my privilege to see it go forward.

Posted by: edtroyhampton | June 15, 2009 3:15 PM | Report abuse

What about minorities that have excellent backgrounds (educational, professional and achievement? Many exceptionally talented minorities regularly work in environments where much less qualified members of the majority gain the same rewards with little effort that we've actually had to work hard for. Now THAT'S the unspoken, unacknowledged covert affirmative action, if you get what I mean.

Posted by: RaMaaNu | June 15, 2009 3:27 PM | Report abuse

to the poster who will never be able to send her lily white kids to europe, whose fault is that? are you concerned because these children that got a chance to see europe up close and very personal are black? don't compare your kids to the prez's children. they will forever be the offspring of the prez of these united states,get over it, you've got 8 years to adjust.

Posted by: ninnafaye | June 15, 2009 3:30 PM | Report abuse

People always talk about doing away with affirmative action but no talks about doing away with legacy (my father, grandfather, etc. are alumni).

Until legacy is discussed I don't want to hear about affirmative action especially talking about taking away.

Posted by: rlj611 | June 16, 2009 12:01 AM | Report abuse

"It's about time we stopped discriminating on the basis of race in this country and evaluated everyone---yes, even minorities---on the merits"

I agree 100%! But such will never become a reality until 307 million of us stop defining "who we are" (visually, physically, and behaviorally) in comparison to "who we are not" (visually, physically, and behaviorally). I argue we'll never become color-blind, non-racist, and a meritocrasy, until 307 million of us stop justifying our "racist procreation practices" and we acknowledge "classism" limits our access to resources, and that both behaviors (practices as individuals and groups) perpetuate racism and other ISMs, all of which become embodied in our laws and policies. Until then, affirmative action, whether it favors light-skin or darker-skin groups, will continue to exist.

For example, Mary C. Water's "Ethnic Options: Choosing Identities In America" and Andrew Hacker's "Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, and Unequal" are two primers I believe will educate anyone (but especially whites) on how our race and class conscious practices perpetuate ISMs in America. "Ethnic Options" is informative in explaining why "White-Ethnics" have come to visually see themselves as "one racial group" -- as "whites" versus "Italian-American" or "Irish-American" or "Polish-American" or "WASP", etc. All these groups used to discriminate against each other, view each other in comparable ways "whites" and "blacks" still view each other today, as separate species. Both primers explain why we have yet to evolve into a non-racist or less racist multicultural nation, why "light-skin" vs "dark-skin" (race ideology) remains our fundamental criteria for how we relate to each other, including why "whites" believe "their tests" are "objective" versus "culturally biased", why most Americans see President Obama as being "black" versus "white" or "bi-racial": the One Drop Rule!

For example, our many tests are created by cultural human beings, not robots. Our laws and policies are created, interpreted, and enforced by cultural human beings, not robots. The persons who interviews us is a cultural human being, not a robot. Our bosses, those who promote or don't promote us, are cultural human beings, not robots. Most poor persons, unemployed persons, in America are white, because they are the largest multi-ethnic group. But most jobs in America are occupied by whites; not blacks, not hispanics, not asians, etc.

So perhaps we need to ask 200 million white-ethnics why "racial discrimination" and all other ISMs continue to exist in America instead of "scape-goating" 107 million targets of this discrimination.

Posted by: GroupThink | June 16, 2009 4:41 AM | Report abuse

I have long been a supporter of affirmative action, but your comments are a bit disturbing. I believe you when you say that your poor test scores are a result of test anxiety. I have read your essays for years and watched you on Morning Joe. Clearly there is much more there than a typical sub-1000 SAT student. So much for standardized testing.

However, you note that you grew up economically and culturally middle class with a fine education in a predominantly white prep school. I can understand why some would say that, with your personal advantages, your race should have played no role whatsoever in your admission to Carleton. (I interviewed for a faculty position at Carleton in the 1980's. It's a terrific school.) There were certainly some white students in the applicant group with comparable or better paper records who were not accepted, perhaps because they could not perform well on standardized tests. Some of them may have come from distressed homes or poor school districts, like the genuinely disadvantaged minority students.

I have not changed my position on affirmative action, but we should be frank: it isn't fair. For culturally and economically distressed students, it can provide an opportunity they would otherwise never have had, but for others, like you, it's just a personal boon. The purpose in the latter cases is not to help the Jonathan Capeharts overcome any real or perceived disadvantages related to race, but it is rather rather to help Carleton and it's overwhelmingly white student body overcome a narrow, parochial past.

This sentiment is often seen as so much window dressing. It is not, and it has been enormously beneficial to the institutions involved and to the country as a whole. Without affirmative action (and the partial integration of the suburbs), the average white American would not have had significant peer contacts with members of minority groups. And without that contact, many would not have come to see them as just people, dumb and smart, vicious and kind, ugly and beautiful--just like those who stare back at them in their mirrors. And without affirmative action, Barack Obama--who clearly had no need for it--would not now be president.

Posted by: wgmadden | June 16, 2009 9:19 AM | Report abuse

I tend to agree with wgmadden to a certain degree. Today, I see all these kids getting hired that look white, act white and think white. They have had every educational opportunity and yet they are counted to fill a quota. Not right. But then, if we just give these opportunities to the under-privileged, a potential backlash awaits.

In my years of observation and experience, I have come to believe that when affirmative action became law, some angry white people decided not to give up without a fight. They decided, "we will give them jobs - the dumbest ones we can find." Then, when that person failed, as they were almost certain to do, the white folk sat back and laughed, saying, "see, told you they were dumb and lazy - they just can't do it." Hiring some of these white-washed minorities can help to curb this effect.

I think it's almost impossible to get away from the problem of people taking care of those who look, act and think like them. Today the white people run the show. But, if another race took the wheel tomorrow, I don't think the result would be any different. So, it behooves those in power today to leave examples of fairness because the balance of power is changing. Hopefully, the next in power will pay the fairness forward.

As for, "When will the minorities say okay it is enough time and we should earn our jobs based on our skills. Posted by: pechins." We will say that when whites stop designing to fill every position with another white. Even government agencies maintain their white-in-power practices. I overheard two managers talking about job applicants one day at the FAA. When they spoke about the first two applicants, they addressed them by name and school. Then suddenly one asked, "what did you think about the Mexican?"

If the system is left to its own recourse, whites will continue to hold the prized seats, and everyone else will be in subservient positions. Remember, it took riots and some bloodshed for this trend to be slowed - much gratitude to the Black Americans who suffered to make this change possible. So, no one can say that white people suddenly, out of the goodness of their hearts, started sharing the pie.

This is not a pretty subject. People who think it is as simple as test anxiety, or being given a free hand out are truly demonstrating their ignorance. Let's hear some other ways to fix the problem if you don't like affirmative action.

Posted by: ViPa | June 16, 2009 12:08 PM | Report abuse

edtroyhampton, I have no idea of what you were trying to say in your blurb. Maybe you should finish your thoughts. Are you saying hispanics have not been denied any privileges? Spit it out! You have been in DC too long, where people have triked themselves into believing that failing to be direct and honest is somehow a sign of intelligence.

Posted by: ViPa | June 16, 2009 12:34 PM | Report abuse

Source: Wikipedia.

Affirmative action in the US began as a tool to address the persisting inequalities for African Americans in the 1960s. This specific term was first used to describe US government policy in 1961. Directed to all government contracting agencies, President Kennedy's Executive Order 10925 mandated "affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin."

Four years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson elaborated on the importance of affirmative action to achieving true freedom for African Americans: “Nothing is more freighted with meaning for our own destiny than the revolution of the Negro American ... In far too many ways American Negroes have been another nation: deprived of freedom, crippled by hatred, the doors of opportunity closed to hope ... But freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please. You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, 'you are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe that you have been completely fair...This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result ... To this end equal opportunity is essential, but not enough, not enough.”

After describing the specific historical context of American affirmative action, President Johnson outlined the basic social science view that supports such policies: “Men and women of all races are born with the same range of abilities. But ability is not just the product of birth. Ability is stretched or stunted by the family that you live with, and the neighborhood you live in--by the school you go to and the poverty or the richness of your surroundings. It is the product of a hundred unseen forces playing upon the little infant, the child, and finally the man.” As the social science explaining impact of such 'unseen forces' has developed, affirmative action has widened in scope. In 1967, President Johnson amended a previous executive order on equal employment opportunity to expressly mention "discrimination on account of sex" as well.

What did President Johnson mean by "unseen forces" -- all the individual and group ways that 200 million whites interact and support each other as a group?

Posted by: GroupThink | June 16, 2009 3:40 PM | Report abuse

just something about sotomayor I am uncomfortable with..she kinda reminds me of that lady judge on the california supreme court that told the gays that they act like the sky is falling and they should take their civil unions and go off somewhere and don't bug society any more..Kennard, I think is her name..another drama story behind her..I can see Sotomayor being that kind of judge..might as well just stick with scalia,thomas, and the boys..they really suck bad but I don't see how Sotomayor is an improvement...

Posted by: rmcgolden | June 16, 2009 3:56 PM | Report abuse

and.....she will be the 6th catholic on the bench when about some affirmative action for other religions?

Posted by: rmcgolden | June 16, 2009 4:06 PM | Report abuse

culturally biased tests my rear. you either know the material or you don't. will someone please post a real example of a culturally biased test. bet u can't!

Posted by: submarinerssn774 | June 16, 2009 5:26 PM | Report abuse

Does anyone think this interview test questions, often ask by employers, is objective or subjective. If the former, will one share the correct answer, one that most employers asking the question would consider it to be correct.

"What makes you best qualified for position?" Or its variant: "Why are you more qualified than the other applicants applying for this job?"

All college admissions and employment test are not multiple-choose written test. Some are essays, some are number crunching, some are a combination of industry jargon, some are interview scenario or behaviorial questions. And all of this depends on the type of job, what rank/level the job is (clerical, professional, technical, managerial, executive, political, etc). Does anyone really think the Supreme Court nominee process is "objective" versus "subjective" and highly political. Since 1629, when did most or all employers and colleges start designing "objective tests" for 307 million Americans ... regardless of race, class, age, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc. ... 100% culturally-biased free?

Posted by: GroupThink | June 16, 2009 6:21 PM | Report abuse

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