Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Affirmative Action for [almost] All

In case you needed any proof, a recent report by the Associated Press concluded that athletes applying to college "enjoy strikingly better odds of having admission requirements bent on their behalf." While this is not terribly surprising in and of itself, what is surprising is how widespread the practice is. According to the report, colleges in every major conference bend their admission standards on behalf of applicants with athletic aspirations.


Thus, to be clear about one thing: the debate over affirmative action and higher education is about the meaning of merit, often defined narrowly by test scores and gpa. By my rough count, many exceptions exist: residency, geography, and legacy, among others. To this list we may add "athletic proficiency." The reasons for admitting athletes as "special admissions," according to Gerald Gurney, incoming president of the National Association of Academic Advisers for Athletics and senior associate athletic director for academics and student life at the University of Oklahoma, is because the practice "does add value to a university."

How is this for value: at the University of Texas, the average SAT score for freshman football players between 2003 and 2005 was a full 320 points lower all other typical admits to the university. They also happen to sit atop the Forbes list of college football's most valuable teams, at $119 million.

Go 'Horns!

Tell it to the state of Alabama, of course, as they get ready to battle Texas for football supremacy. There is no better value than cold, hard cash, I suppose, and Alabama comes in fifth on the Forbes list, at $92 million.

Try to make sense of this tangled web. A university can consider anything under the sun and nobody cares or objects. In some places, they even demand it. But once a university decides to diversify its student class, lawsuits ensue and propositions spring up in state after state.

Where are Ward Connerly and Barbara Grutter when you need them? Isn't merit the name of the game, and unfairness to none?



Don't hold your breath.

The Courts to the Rescue?

Anybody else find it amusing (ironic?) how conservatives are quick to castigate courts for their activist ways, yet just as quick to enlist these very courts when it suits their purposes? In case any further proof was needed, here is yet another example, and a surprising one at that: the health care bill.

According to the Florida's attorney general, William McCollum, the personal mandate to buy health insurance in the bill is “an affront to our country’s principles.” As for the fine for those who refuse to buy insurance, he deems it illegal, because it is not connected to any commercial act.

The a Republican who is running for governor in 2010, said that the so-called mandate was He added that the fine might be illegal because, in his view, it is disconnected from a commercial act. In his view, it is “a tax on people or a penalty on those who don’t do anything.”

The Heritage Foundation similarly wishes the courts to save us from ourselves. According to a recent memorandum, the mandate is "unprecedented and unconstitutional," beyond the powers of Congress under the Commerce Clause as well as an unconstitutional tax under Article I, section 8.

It would be easy to engage this debate on the merits, and many already have. But the larger point is far more important. The debate over judicial activism and restraint is often portrayed as a debate between liberals and conservatives over the soul of American democracy. Reality is far from that. We are all activists now, and the only question for the future is whose policy views will the courts accept.

That these debates are carried on in major media outlets and the hypocrisy of the conservative position is not highlighted by anybody is, in and of itself, a triumph of the conservative movement.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

African Americans Still Support Obama but Less Enthusiastically

Apropos this post, CNN has a new poll showing that 9 out of 10 Blacks support the President.  But they are less enthusiastic supporters than they were a year ago.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Will Black and Brown Voters Turnout in Large Numbers 2010 and 2012?

The President is hearing from increasingly vocal black and brown political elites.  Black leaders, especially Congressional Black Caucus leaders, are unhappy with that economic public policy initiatives have not contained special provisions for the black community.  Latino leaders are unhappy with the President for his lack of initiative on immigration reform.  The President provides a response of sorts here as reported Politico.    His basic response, which incidentally is the correct political response, is that he is President of the United States and not president of black or brown America.  The real question is whether the grumbling of black and brown elites will make its way down to the black electorate.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Can Anybody Make a Movie for Women of Color?

One hears often the criticism that people of color make too much of a deal about race. Sometimes that criticism has merit and sometimes it does not. I was attracted to this NY Times Magazine article by Daphne Merkin featuring Nancy Meyers, the writer-director-producer. Ms. Meyers directs, among other duties, the forthcoming movie "It's Complicated." The article is about Ms. Meyers' successful career in making movies for women and featuring women in lead roles. Notwithstanding the tile of the story--Can Anybody Make a Movie for Women--I was not surprised that Ms. Meyers makes movies really about and for white women. And I was not bothered by that fact in anyway.  In fact that's what interested me in the story; I wanted to know how she did it. But I was surprised and slightly annoyed by how Ms. Merkin deals with this issue--that Ms. Meyers is capable of telling the stories of and relating to only white women in the moviemaking.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Obama's poll numbers: one reason to worry about 2012

There is no question that President Obama's poll numbers have taken a slide, and the latest confirmation of this downward trend comes from this Politico article referencing the latest poll from Public Policy Polling, which pegged the president's job approval at 47%. Are there reasons to worry about 2012? I'm worried.
My general feeling is that the President will be fine in 2012 and maybe more than fine if the economy rebounds. If the unemployment rate goes down significantly over the next couple of years, easy reelection. This would be consistent with past historical practice and fits the standard theory.
But the question is whether the standard theory fits in this case. The President's poll numbers have fallen quite steeply and one might argue too steeply to be a reflection of his job performance. An increasingly large proportion of the electorate seems to be issuing an early and final verdict on Obama. That is, they are already starting to write him off. When you look at the polls you see that conservatives abandoned the President very early in his presidency and they are not coming back. In fact, they are completely energized by the Obama presidency. To some extent this was to be expected (it is reminiscent of the way liberals felt about GWB--they never liked him from day one, that never changed, and Bush became fuel for liberals.) But then moderates and independents have started wavering. And of course the news of late has been the criticism that the President has received from liberals. All of this and the President is less than a year into office.
The question is whether the movement of the independents away from Obama is caused by external political events (healthcare reform, TARP, two wars: Iraqistan, a 10% unemployment rate, etc.) or is caused by a general distrust of Obama himself. A distrust that did not manifest itself during the election simply because it looks like the country was falling over a precipice but is mushrooming as things appear to be stabilizing. If the latter, i'm worried because even if the economy improves, iraqistan stabilizes, and healthcare reform gets passed Obama will not get the deserved credit.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Roll Tide!!

How is this for academic priorities? The University of Alabama announced that it would cancel three days of classes, from January 6 to the 8th, so that students and faculty wishing to attend the Rose Bowl could do so. Not to worry, of course, as "[s]tudents should expect additional assignments to make up for the lost class time."

This is from the same university that pays its football coach, Nick Saban, 4 million dollars a year, which is seven times what its president makes.

And to think that some people still refer to the football players as "student-athletes." "Commodities" might be a much more appropriate moniker.

At least the University of Alabama does not pretend to be anything it is not.

Pasadena better be ready as the Tide rolls!!!

Monday, December 7, 2009

More on White Athletes and Race

From the NY Times comes this article about a white high school player who wants a future in basketball. And from Espn comes this report on the dearth of white american players in the NBA. Both articles implicitly present a tension that is not made fully explicit: can you be both white and a skilled basketball player. Luis or I should have more to say about these issues, later. But for now, just the links.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Did Charlie Weis get fired because he's white?

My good friend Jim Chen and I had a running argument as to whether it would better for racial equality if whites were treated like people of color (Jim's position) or people of color were treated like white people (my position). In the case of Notre Dame's firing of Charlie Weis, it appears that Jim's view of racial equality prevailed.

I'm sure Weis was fired for a number of reasons, but it would be surprising if one of Notre Dame's justifications for firing Weis is that it did not feel that it could keep Weis after it fired Willingham under similar circumstances.  Afterall, Willingham had a better winning percentage than Weis, the man who replaced him. Though I believe that Willingham got a raw deal from Notre Dame, I still wished that Notre Dame had not fired Charlie Weis.
Prior to the firing of Willingham, Notre Dame had a reputation as an institution that ran its athletic program differently, with integrity and with long-term considerations in ming. When Notre Dame fired Willingham without allowing him to complete his initial contract, the school was roundly criticized for ditching its principles in favor of short-term gain. With the firing of Weis, who unlike Willingham, was given a five years to prove what he could accomplish, Notre Dame confirms that it is not much different than other athletic institutions.

When Jim and I were arguing about the best way to accomplish racial equality, my worry was that defining equality downward (treating whites the way blacks and other people of color are treated) will make our society overall worse off. Jim's point of course was the sensible one that once whites experienced "colored" equality, they'll change their ways.

I think Notre Dame would have been better off to have said: hey we screwed up with Willingham and we're sorry for that. But the best way to make-up for it is to return to our principles. What makes the least amount of sense to me is to treat Weis badly because Willingham was treated badly. So, appropos Luis' recent post on Toby Gerhart, was Charlie Weis fired because he is white?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Race, College Football, and the Curious Case of Toby Gerhart

Guy wants to know "[w]hy are the faces at the bottom of the well always the same ones?" For an answer, look to the race for the Heisman Trophy this year, and in particular the candidacy of Stanford running back Toby Gerhart. In case you don't know, this would be Stanford's white running back. According to Phil Taylor of Sports Illustrated, his chances of winning aren't very good, apparently because of the fact that he is white, not in spite of it.

This is a remarkable story not only about the world of college football but, far more importantly, for what it tells us about the world of hiring and debates about the need for diversity.

Put simply, white players are not supposed to be running backs, the same way that black players were not supposed to be quarterbacks not that long ago. In 2003, for example, a white running back for the Chicago bears played one game in place of the injured black starter. The white running back, Brock Forsey, had a spectacular game. By the next game, however, the starter was back from the injury list, and Forsey never saw the field again. He carried the ball three more times during his brief and undistinguished NFL career. To this day, he cannot explain what happened. "No one ever said anything about race. But there may be some preconceived notions out there. A white guy from Idaho isn't what you have in mind when you envision an NFL running back."

This story in mind, think about the history of the Heisman Trophy, awarded every year to "the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity." What exactly the standard to win the award is, and who deserves to win any given year, is anybody's guess. But we know this: from the inception of the award in 1935, twenty-seven black players have won it, the first one coming in 1961. From these twenty-seven, twenty have been running backs. Yet prior to 1961, of the twenty-six players who won the award, eighteen were white halfbacks (i.e., running backs). We know exactly what happened post-1961: college football coaches opened their doors to black student athletes. Racism made all the difference in the world. This was a revolution in the truest sense of the term. Black players only needed a chance to show what they can do.

So the question is, can Toby Gerhart, white running back from Stanford University, win the award this year? If historical trends hold, the answer appears to be no. In this vein, here is a question from a nationally syndicated radio personality: "But lets be honest here, Toby. White tailback. How many . . . coaches are looking at you saying, 'I don't think you can play that position for me, but I think you're a football player.'"

Now take that question and apply it to the world of universities, and law schools in particular. The numbers are still pretty skewed, and some law schools are yet to hire their first professor of color in years, if not ever. Dirty-dozen lists abound. I cannot help but wonder: how often do we go through the hiring process and say to ourselves exactly what people are telling Toby Gerhart, or what Brock Forsey thinks happened to him? In other words, how often do we look at a candidate of color and envision a law professor? And for those who get hired, how often is the road to tenure filled with barriers not faced by everybody else? How often do we say the same thing in reference to law clerkships, law review editorships or, as we saw during the confirmation hearings of Justice Sotomayor, for appointment to the Supreme Court?

I don't think racism alone explains why Toby Gerhart is unlikely to win the Heisman trophy, nor does it explain the dearth of professors of color at our law schools, or "why the faces at the bottom of the well [are] always the same ones." But surely, to suggest that we live in a post-racial America, an America where we are ultimately judged by the content of our character, is nothing more than a canard, and a cruel and dangerous one at that.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Race, class, and the recession

Apropos this post from Luis on our alma matter, the Michigan Law School, comes stories here from MSNBC and here from the NY Times about how the economic downturn is affecting black employment. Both articles are worrisome because they tell the same stories for different classes of black people

The MSNBC story focuses on the black lower to middle class and narrates how the recession is having a disproportionately negative impact on those classes. The NY Times story focuses mainly on the black middle to upper class. These are highly educated black people, specifically black men, and they can't find jobs. The MSNBC story seems to be more about the intersection of both race and class. The NY Times story is more about race. Why are the faces at the bottom of the well always the same ones?