GUY RAZ, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
When President Obama took office, there was a lot of talk about a post-racial America, whether, for example, it's time to re-examine race-based affirmative action. And a few prominent voices have recently pointed to a study out of Princeton that suggests race-based decisions may be shutting working and middle-class whites out of elite institutions.
We'll hear some of the arguments in a moment, but we begin with the story of Jennifer Gratz, who applied to the University of Michigan in 1995. Most lawyers and law students will know her name. After all, it's attached to a famous Supreme Court case.
Ms. JENNIFER GRATZ: One of my closest friends just started law school, and I was talking with her yesterday as she was driving to her first day of classes. And all of a sudden, it hit me and I said, oh, my gosh, you might study my case.
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Ms. GRATZ: In 1995, I was 17, going on 18, thought I had put together a good application to get into the university and was excited about college.
I think I was a pretty good student in high school. I graduated with a 3.8 GPA. I'm student council vice president, class congress, National Honor Society, coach of the local cheerleading little league program, math and science tutor, organized a senior citizen prom, organized blood drives, was very, very involved.
And on top of that, neither of my parents had graduated from college. My dad was a police officer. My mom started as a secretary and worked her way into different positions at one of the local hospitals.
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Ms. GRATZ: I loved the University of Michigan. I remember going to football games with my dad, visiting the campus. It's safe to say we were a maize and blue family.
I believe it was April of 1995. I remember it like it was yesterday. I had been coming home from school and checking the mail immediately for weeks, probably months. And I remember grabbing the mail. My dad was sitting in a recliner.
I grabbed the mail. And there were - there was an envelop from the University of Michigan, and it was thin. And I questioned everything that I had done, everything that I wanted to do going forward. I was sad. I was upset. I was embarrassed. It was a really rough evening.
Ultimately, I knew that I wanted to get an education. So I went to bed and I woke up the next morning, and I regrouped and figured out what I was going to do.
RAZ: How did you decide - when did you decide, rather, to file a lawsuit?
Ms. GRATZ: Well, throughout high school, there were rumors that the University of Michigan used race in their admissions policy, that the university treated people differently based on skin color. And I remember thinking there's no way that that's true.
RAZ: About a year later, a professor from the university testified in front of the state legislature. He said he'd uncovered documents that showed the school used race when deciding who to let in.
Ms. GRATZ: And at that point, I had contacted a few people and ended up in touch with who became my attorneys.
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Unidentified Woman #1: The University of Michigan was hit with a lawsuit today, charging...
Unidentified Man #2: One of the plaintiffs is 20-year-old Jennifer Gratz of Southgate, Michigan.
Ms. GRATZ: I felt like I was discriminated against by race.
And I think discriminating against anyone and I mean that, against anyone is wrong.
Unidentified Man #3: The lawsuit was filed by the Washington, D.C...
Ms. GRATZ: And I've had many people call and say that they've studied my case, or oftentimes, they say, I just studied you in school. It's a surreal experience to hear your last name referenced in respect to a lawsuit that went to the U.S. Supreme Court.
RAZ: In Gratz versus Bollinger, the court ruled that the use of race in Michigan's admissions process was unconstitutional. Gratz went on to study at the university's Dearborn campus. Today, she lives in Sacramento, where she works for an organization that advocates against race-based affirmative action.
In that 2003 case, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor made a prediction that race-based affirmative action wouldn't be necessary in 25 years. That leaves room then for another 18 years.
But in recent weeks, some commentators have been wondering whether it should end sooner, given that we have an African-American president and given that the Census Department predicts that minorities will outnumber whites by the middle of this century.
But if Jennifer Gratz' case was meant to restrict preferential treatment based on race, how does affirmative action work today?
Mr. TIM WISE (Essayist): We've had about 25 to 30 years of steady misinformation on this issue.
RAZ: That's Tim Wise. He's written widely on the issue. He explains that affirmative action means that, for example, a university admissions officer will try and evaluate a whole series of factors when looking at an applicant.
Mr. WISE: So when they look at that kid's SAT score, they're not going to assume that because it may be a couple hundred points below someone else that they're automatically unqualified. They're going to look at the context within which that student obtained that particular score.
So if you have, in this case, a black applicant or a Latino applicant who they know overcame substantial obstacles in order to obtain that score, that's going to be a plus in their favor.
RAZ: That's the simple part. Where the argument becomes more complicated is whether that plus is a good thing. And Tim Wise thinks it is.
Mr. WISE: Look, the whole history of the United States is the history of affirmative action. It was the Naturalization Act of 1790 that made whites the only legal citizens. It was the Homestead Act of 1862 that gave 250 million acres of basically free land to white families. It was the FHA loan program in the middle of the 20th century that gave out $120 billion in housing equity preferentially to white families when people of color were blocked from it.
Time after time after time, this country intervened on behalf of whites and only on behalf of whites. All affirmative action, as we know it, tries to do is to balance that out.
RAZ: So that's the historical argument for race-based affirmative action, but an argument against it goes like this:
Mr. JOHN McWHORTER (Linguist and Lecturer, Columbia University): I don't have a problem with affirmative action or racial preferences. I have a problem with the basic idea that they don't end until society is perfect.
RAZ: That's John McWhorter. He is a linguist and lecturer at Columbia University who's written about race.
Mr. McWHORTER: What somebody like Tim Wise is saying is that there is racism in American society. I think we all know that. I assume that that will always, to an extent, be true.
The question is what you do about it. Is one of the things that you do about it to admit black students to top institutions with lower standards?
RAZ: John McWhorter's argument is that affirmative action now does more harm than good.
Mr. McWHORTER: What concerns me is that until you get rid of a system that says that B+ is about as well as you have to do, then that's about as good as all but a few strange shooting stars are going to do, and I don't think it's good enough because, in general, people do as well as they have to.
How can black parents know what it is to qualify your student for, say, Yale or Princeton in the way that an Asian or white student's parents can if black students can get into those schools without their parents having had to learn those sorts of things?
RAZ: There's another argument raised by recent research out of Princeton that suggests affirmative action punishes rural and working-class whites who are not admitted to elite schools. Again, here's Tim Wise.
Mr. WISE: What the research actually says is that, in fact, working-class whites from so-called red state, rural places like Utah, West Virginia, Alabama, Wyoming, et cetera, actually have a greater odds of admission than similarly qualified people from states like California or states like New York.
If you take an applicant to an elite school in Utah, actually has a nine times - excuse me - a 45 times greater chance than the California applicant of being admitted. That is nine times larger than the so-called preference that black students receive relative to white students. And yet, the people who complain about so-called racial preference say nothing about the geographic preferences that actually do work to the benefit of oftentimes rural and outlying white folks.
RAZ: Poor whites are the majority of the poor in this country. We know that. That's a fact.
Mr. WISE: Right. Right.
RAZ: So how does - I mean, how does affirmative action benefit them? I mean, it seems like it would negatively impact them.
Mr. WISE: Well, blacks and Latinos combined, at most of the elite colleges in this country, make up about 12 percent of all the students combined at those schools.
Obviously, the reason that those working-class and lower income white folks are not getting in is not because they are losing out on those 12 percent. It's because they're losing out on the other 88 percent.
To get angry at affirmative action would be like driving around the mall, not finding a parking space and then blaming the pregnant mother parking or the handicapped parking as for the reason that you don't have a spot. The reason you don't have a spot is because a lot of not pregnant, not disabled people got to the mall before you did.
So it's an issue of scarcity. If we want to solve the scarcity problem, I'm all for that, but you don't solve it by pitting working-class whites against people of color, both of whom face obstacles.
RAZ: And on that point, John McWhorter agrees.
Mr. McWHORTER: In terms of diversity, what we need to think about is class diversity and how that really is about redressing the wrongs in society that affect all of us.
RAZ: But can - I mean, do they have to be mutually exclusive? I mean, couldn't you have a system where there were preferences based on race and also preferences based on economic background?
Mr. McWHORTER: Sure, you can assemble a class where you take race into account, just like you take into account geographic diversity, just as you take into account diversity of talents. But the idea is that you adjust for race in terms of people having the same kinds of qualifications.
You do not have a kind of diversity where what you're really doing is creating a two-tiered student body that no one's supposed to talk about because the students who are black and brown, it's not as if it's Yale or jail. They go to other schools. They go to fine schools. And there's a great deal of data on this. And I think that everyone is happy and everyone is empowered. That doesn't get talked about enough.
RAZ: Tim Wise argues that when it comes to the debate over affirmative action, much of it stems from what he thinks is a misunderstanding of what the Jennifer Gratz case meant.
Mr. WISE: The idea that colleges have to have a certain number of black students and a certain number of Latino students just isn't true. But the overwhelming majority of white folks in all the research I've seen believe those lies, those myths, and that's because politicians and commentators have been beating that drum of white racial resentment and backlash. None of that is true.
RAZ: That's Tim Wise. He spoke to us from Nashville, Tennessee. We also heard from John McWhorter, who joined us from the studios of member station WBGO in Newark, New Jersey.