Live-blogging: The future of affirmative action

MPR’s Midmorning is debating whether there’s still a need for affirmative action. Guests in the 9 a.m. hour are Mary Frances Berry of the University of Pennsylvania and former chairperson of the Commission on Civil Rights; and John McWhorter, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and author of “Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America.”


Kerri says the show stems from an appearance on the show by Gwen Ifill. She says the phones lit up when the subject of affirmative action came up so her staff knew they had to do an entire show on it.

9:09 a.m. – Berry says people have always referred to affirmative action as a quota to hire unqualified people and that’s incorrect. She says it’s clearly needed now. She says until the country comes up with something better, “we have to keep trying.”

9:12 a.m. – McWhorter says a “very white person” has had it hard too. He says he witnessed a transition from race-based factors in universities where people would “automatically get affirmative action. You get it whether you want it or not.” Basing it on skin color — as opposed to, say, socio economic inequity — in appropriate. (His article on the subject)

9:15 a.m. – “Nothing you’ve said is anything I think,” Berry said. She says universities only “affirm.” She says she’s had many white people who don’t do well on standardized tests who she’s recommended. “It’s about our country and our demography and who we include and what we think will be the future of our country.” She says she looks at the “whole person.”

9:20 a.m. – McWhorter: “People with brown skin are admitted with lower test scores”.

Berry: “I don’t know anywhere where that happens.”

9:21 a.m. – Caller: Many people benefit who are white. She’s a college instructor who says her class benefits. McWhorter says he sees “just as much diversity from the white Catholic who’s 7 feet tall, from Chinese….”

9:22 a.m. – Online commenter says admission policies should be “class based.” McWhorter agrees. Berry says most universities do admit people based on trying to get the working class and poor “a free ride.” She does not think people who are poor should be admitted if the school isn’t looking at “the whole person.”

9:26 a.m. — Kerri references the link I’d already provided above. McWhorter says he never met someone who scored well on an SAT ‘who wasn’t a great student.’ Berry says she had one who flunked out in the first year.

9:28 a.m. – Berry explains her comment above. What she meant was that people are not admitted simply because they were black or Latino. McWhorter says he’s seen that happen. “Outrageous,” said Berry. First time today they’ve agreed on something.

Tangent time: California’s ban on affirmative action under court scrutiny.

9:32 a.m. – A student at William Mitchell School of law calls to tell Berry about two cases before the Supreme Court (aside: Students, you might want to just bring up these cases for clarification, instead of trying to ‘school’ lawyers who live these things and probably have more intimate knowledge of the cases.).

9:36 a.m. – Pressed on whether policies of ‘race only” is the consideration, McWhorter concedes “not only.” But “they’re trying to make ‘race neutral’ policies tip toward race,” he said.

“In none of those California or Georgia cases did people say all they wanted to do is look at race, that’s just academically irresponsible,” Berry says. “You’re making it sound like they’re saying, ‘oh, black people, let’s put them in this pile.'”

“Nobody’s saying that,” McWhorter replied.

9:39 a.m. – “In the age of Obama, his being elected to the presidency does not resolve these issues,” says Berry. “We still have all these propositions around the country… trying to get rid of affirmative action.

Tangent time: Life after affirmative action, Nebraska is trying to figure it out.

9:42 a.m. – If you’re listening live, you’re hearing references to Richard Sanders. Here’s what they’re talking about

9:43 a.m. – “Cosby” cited as an example of African American middle class. An attorney married to a doctor. That’s usually not middle class in any race.

Debate over whether there should be more people of color on TV news. Berry says, “John, do you think that there are more people of color who are well educated who can read the news?” McWhorter says “yes.”

This is an area where there is a lot of concern in journalism circles, that as the industry continues to die, it’s taking out gains made by affirmative action first.

9:48 a.m. – Does MnDOT stiff minority-owned contractors? A caller says so and Berry says that’s been the case in the construction industry for quite awhile.

“If there’s evidence of discrimination in the contracting in Minnesota, then, yeah, you have to have some kind of program,” McWhorter says.

9:50 a.m. – Mark from Woodbury calls to relay personal story. When he was an ungrad in Boston, he applied to several grad schools. He got a phone call from professor at U of Washington who said he could apply for many grants, and realized they were “Hispanic grants.” Looking at his file later, he said he realized he was only accepted at the school because they thought he was Hispanic. He says he believes in affirmative action “when it’s done right.”

Berry says affirmative action is illegal in the state of Washington by referendum.

9:54 a.m. – McWhorter and Berry both say Obama probably won’t make any statements above affirmative action. “He’s a politician, he wants to be popular, and he wants to get re-elected,” Berry says.

She says the images of he and his family has moved the discussion into an undesirable area of people thinking “we’re done and we don’t have to do any more.”

  • Stacy

    Why is John lumping Asian students with White students beyond test scores? Asian people face racism and prejudice just like any other marinalized group and to separate Black and Brown people versus White and Asian when hs is speaking of the students in his class is to assume Asians will have similar views as Whites and disregard the fact that Asians are not white and do not share their experience, but rather face racism just like any other people marginalized based on race.

  • Lisa

    We need affirmative action.

    Business- pick up financial statements and look at the photos–and you see all white men.

    Without AA policies companies would not look at pay, promotion, movement for diverse/female populations.

    It is not just a class issue- many people have hidden biases that they are not aware of. Project Implicit at Harvard illustrates and validates these biases.

    Benefits: My sisters and I benefited from AA policies. (We are black and grew up poor) Our parents did not go to college. My sisters and I not only received our BA degrees, we also have Master’s degrees. One of us has a MBA from a top 20 school- and received a race based scholarship, with a GMAT that score was lower than the average. However, she was a top student (3.8 GPA). Without AA, we would probably rely on government resources for survival- vs. contributing to society and the tax base.

    That said—in business- we have a VERY long way to go to reach the corner offices. AA has not fixed the issues/discrimination in business.

  • hsl2000

    I am saddened by Dr. Barry’s unwillingness to listen and perhaps consider some of the comments being made by Dr McWhorter and others. I say this as one who has long seen the need for affirmative action in general. However, research has clearly shown the growing economic class divides in our society, and programs that use race as the basis for affirmative action are no longer “fair” or acceptable. The children of Clarence Thomas and Henry Cisneros should have no more bump from affirmative action programs than a Kennedy or Udall scion.

    Barry’s denial of the existence of programs that use race alone to make decisions is disingenuous at best and deceptive at worst.

    I had thought we might get a good discussion here, but Dr. Barry was too defensive to make the debate balanced. This is sad because I might have thought she would have been the person I agreed with most prior to this presentation.

  • Mike

    Mr. McWhorter’s position seems to be based on the premise that we are somehow letting too many Black or Latino students into selective institutions of higher education. This is patently ridiculous, since such institutions constantly struggle to diversify their student bodies, and to this point have not succeeded. (I know. I have worked at several such highly selective universities and colleges.) This parallels the point that the news media, after decades of effort, have also been unable to diversify their newsrooms.

  • Matt


    Because to someone like him, Asians outperform whites and brown minorities and are thus the Model Minority. They are the example as to why whites feel like affirmative action doesn’t work. Because their scores are better than whites, they point to them as the biggest culprits of “stealing” seats from whites and lower-scoring brown minorities.

    Not agreeing, but just pointing out his view.

  • bsimon

    I’m not convinced the problem is that skin color is in inhibitor. I think that socio-economic background is a far greater inhibitor. What is troubling is the correlation between skin color & poverty. I think that is the problem that needs to be addressed.

  • Matt


    It’s not an imaginary correlation. It’s rooted in history. Look at the poorest schools, the worst performing ones, the neighborhoods that are falling apart, where the charter schools are letting people escape to — it’s not just an assumption.

  • max

    As immigrants of christian and middle eastern dissent, my family has felt some of the same subtle discrimination in the US as we escaped. In the middle east it was because we were not a member of the preferred Muslim religion. In the US it is because we are not considered a member of a preferred race as defined by the US political system. Quite frankly, there is little difference. As an immigrant I also resent the notion that given my skin color, I could not contribute to the diversity of a work place or university even though my back ground, culture, language, and experiences are more unique then many “black/brown” people who have lived in the US all their lives, with all it’s privileges. I love this country with all my heart. But affirmative action using race and skin color as a consideration needs to end. The good people of this country will eventually end raced based preferences. Yes We Can.

  • kennedy

    Every day, we make judgments based on limited information. If you wear a red shirt at Target, you are more likely to be mistaken for an employee. If you speak with a southern accent, you may be suspected as a NASCAR fan. If you wear a yamaka, you may not be offered a ham sandwich. Everything we say and do tells others something about us. From that information, other things are inferred. This is stereotyping.

    What we are talking about is not removing, but rather changing racial stereotypes. This takes decades but it happens, even without government intervention. I have different stereotypes than my parents and grandparents.

    Affirmative action will not change an individual’s stereotypes. It is intended to promote intelligent reconsideration of some unconscious judgments, such as those based on race. As a broader range of people are visibly successful in a given endeavor, stereotypes will change.

    Abuse of any system that determines allocation of resources (jobs) is likely. This is not an excuse to continue allowing unfair exclusionary practices.

  • bsimon

    Matt writes

    “It’s not an imaginary correlation. It’s rooted in history. Look at the poorest schools, the worst performing ones, the neighborhoods that are falling apart, where the charter schools are letting people escape to — it’s not just an assumption.”

    I hope I did not imply the correllation was imaginary or an assumption. My point was that if we attack the poverty problem, we will see the race-poverty correllation shrink. There will always be people at different economic positions in our society; but we should not be able to see ethnic or racial differences between economic groups. I don’t think affirmative action programs are effectively targetting the connection between economic status & race.

  • GregS

    AA is based on an outdated model.

    There was a time when sharp racial and gender barriers needed to be overcome by quotas and race/gender based promotion – but that was 30 years ago.

    These days women and minorities are just as likely to benefit from racial and gender discrimination as suffer from it.

    Here is a wake-up call for AA supporters.

    Women make up the majority of college students at numbers larger than can be explained by simple demography.

    Women make up the majority of students entering medical, dental and law schools.

    Should we now apply AA preferences to college males?

    We need to move past AA by addressing issues of inner-city toxic culture and on find ways to encourage minority children to excel in school and strive for the professions.

  • Joanna

    Greg, you are right about greater number of women students at college, but I disagree with you conclusion because that is not the full story. Here is another fact: in the last 30 years, while the numbers of assistant and associate professor who are women have increased in SOME fields (not all–just look at the Econ, Math or most IT departments at the U of MN), the numbers of full professors who are women in all fields have not changed at all. Women are still not being promoted to the highest ranks, and when they are, it is often after having done twice as much as their male peers. So greater numbers at the entry levels have not yet resulted in greater parity in the positions of most prestige, influence, and pay. Until that fact changes, we still need to take the impact of misogyny (or racism, or classism) into account when seeking to fill positions.

  • GregS


    I doubt that you could attribute the lack of senior women professors to discrimination. The problem seems more likely to be a matter of choice and seniority.

    Women are a clear majority in colleges and while they have made great stride in medicine, dentistry and the law, they still tend to gravitate away from the hard sciences, like engineering and math.

    Of course this is something people do not want to talk about as witnessed by the Larry Summers flap.

    It is not like males with two year Art History degrees are being promoted over women with MBA’s and PHD’s in physics.

    On the other hand with tenure and seniority, women and minorities get caught in a trap, much of their own making. At least in Universities, the most ardent supporters of AA are also the most ardent supporters of unions, whose primary appeal revolves around tenure and seniority.

    These things are simply a matter of time.