Alms for the poor

Today’s NYT reports that colleges and universities nationwide have responded to “threats of litigation and pressure from Washington” by making traditionally minority-only or women-only scholarships and programs available to whites and men as well. While this action opens up new resources to individual students, it’s also part of a larger movement to eliminate the use of race as a criterion in college admissions.

I can understand that many people oppose affirmative action, and I can understand their fears and worries. I understand why the issue is so hotly contested. But it seems to me totally pointless to try to apply race-blind standards to scholarships, fellowships, and other programs — optional programs unrelated to admission to an institution as a whole — when the whole purpose of these fellowships is to celebrate excellence within, and to lend support to members of, a particular group.

Among all the students and teachers I know, it’s understood and accepted that not everyone is going to be eligible for every scholarship. Group-specific scholarships are common, and they have been around forever. There are scholarships for third-generation Japanese Americans, scholarships for students from farming families, scholarships for students committed to advocating international human rights. Many of them have some kind of community component to them: for instance, an African American fraternity might sponsor a scholarship, or a society for women in the sciences might have one for women. These scholarships have a historical component: many of them were started years ago, at a time of fewer opportunities and thus greater need for community support. These programs were meant to promote and expand the educational opportunities available to the group in question, and I see no reason that that should be changed at present. Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare won’t take you for a scholarship? Apply for one more tailored to your qualities and qualifications! There are plenty out there. Scholarships aren’t meant to be race-blind or sex-blind or blind to whatever else you’ve got going on. They’re not even intended to be blind to the worthiness of your character, since many of them also consider your personal merits in the decision process (“is flexible and possesses a good sense of humor” [original link broken, but it was for a Rotary International scholarship).

As to opening up more of these programs to white students and men, I can only quote this paragraph from the article:

Advocates of focused scholarships programs like Theodore M. Shaw, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., challenge the notion that programs for minority students hurt whites. “How is it that they conclude that the great evil in this country is discrimination against white people?” Mr. Shaw asked. “Can I put that question any more pointedly? I struggle to find the words to do it because it’s so stunning.”


[This post was imported on 4/10/14 from my old blog at]