The Fight for Democratic Merit in College Admissions

Collage by Judy Goldstein, using image of Lani Guinier at the 30th Anniversary of the March on Washington, 1993 (via Wikimedia Commons). 

It's pretty dystopian how seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds all over the United States spend nearly a year trying to compile their entire life into a condensed report to be presented to college officials. As a senior in high school, I’m familiar with this struggle. I, too, have polished my school reports, written dozens of essays, badgered teachers for letters of recommendation, and so on. These are all things that admissions officers will review, and their decision will probably affect me for the rest of my life (or at least, it feels like it will). But there are some things that I can’t control that admissions officers take into consideration: besides my essays, test scores, and extracurricular activities, they’ll look at my race. As a white Jew, I know that I’m not typically prioritized for my race in the college application process, but make no mistake—as a Jew, this is my fight too.

 At many top universities, race is a factor that is considered during the admissions process. This consideration is known as affirmative action, which the Jewish Women’s Archive defines as "a policy or program, often used in recruitment, admissions or hiring, that gives preference to members of a minority group to redress a history of discrimination." This policy has (yet again) come under fire in the past few months, with critics saying it is a discriminatory practice. The US Supreme Court heard a case in early December challenging the race-conscious admissions processes at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, and during oral arguments, the conservative majority was critical of the affirmative action policy. Declaring Harvard's and UNC's admissions processes unconstitutional would decrease the number of Black and Latinx students in elite institutions, according to the New York Times, and to me, this looks to be where we are headed.

In a brief submitted for an earlier, related case, Students for Fair Admissions INC. vs President & Fellows of Harvard College, the plaintiffs, an organization called Students for Fair Admissions, drew an interesting parallel. They made the argument that Asian Americans are discriminated against by affirmative action policies, as it makes it harder for them to get into a university, in the same way that Jewish Americans were in the early 1900s, through what were then called Jew Quotas. I don't think this argument holds, however, since the point of affirmative action is to increase representation in higher education, and the point of Jew quotas was the opposite. And yet, despite being targeted by exclusionary education policies in the past, many Jews aren't in support of affirmative action, even though it seeks to uplift other minorities today. If that sounds like you, I suggest you take some wisdom from Jewish feminists of the past.

You can start with Lani Guinier, a prominent Jewish civil rights theorist, who argued that we need to put more emphasis on democratic merit, or potential for public good, in higher education, as "democratic merit does what our current meritocracy fails to do: it creates a system that incentivizes individuals who serve the goals and contribute to the conditions of a thriving democracy for both their own good as well as for the collective good."  How are we to have a "thriving democracy" if our democracy is missing the perspective of many Americans? The Jewish community, especially among those of us who identify as women, has a history of being denied education, just as BIPOC communities do now. Jewish Americans no longer face comparable barriers to higher education (though they do face antisemitism), but, if these barriers still existed like they do for BIPOC, we would undoubtedly lose incredibly important perspectives from our democracy. It’s not unfair to prioritize BIPOC groups if the United States has historically, and continues to, disadvantage them. It would be unfair not to prioritize them.

Furthermore, affirmative action can uplift people in the Jewish community. There are many BIPOC Jews, including Lani Guinier: while around two-thirds of Jews self-identify as (white) Ashkenazi, our larger community is intersectional, with many members identifying as BIPOC. White Jews need to think about affirmative action through this lens. Instead of framing it as an exercise in empathizing with other communities, we should fight for those in our own community. As a white Ashkenazi Jew, I realize that affirmative action may lessen my probability of getting into certain colleges, but it also lifts up those in my community who don’t have the same privileges as I do. Historically, Jews have been marginalized for our ethnicity and religion—yet some of us have been, and are now, even further marginalized for the color of their skin.

Current affirmative action activists can learn from Lani Guinier. Guinier supported affirmative action, but she also supported reforming it—as it is still a deeply flawed system. Affirmative action prioritizes “testocratic” merit, or arbitrary worth based on test performance, by selecting only minorities who perform well on standardized tests like the SAT or the ACT. What affirmative action should really do is select students for admission who show the "characteristics that indicate a student’s potential for future success in our democracy -- leadership, the ability to collaborate with others, resiliency and a drive to learn," according to Guinier. She has a few suggestions on how to achieve this: among them is a system the Posse Program utilizes called the Bial-Dale Adaptability Index, which examines students for traits that show democratic merit. When New York City students identified by the BDI were tracked, it was found that the BDI accurately predicted attributes that make a leader. Not only would using systems like the BDI diversify higher education, but this would also strengthen our democracy by identifying future leaders. We can learn from Guinier not only to champion affirmative action but to also address its flaws. Guinier taught us to move forward, not back.

Currently, we are moving backward. People of color don’t start off on the same playing field as white people due to years of systematic disadvantage. Thus, affirmative action is anything but discriminatory, and supporters of educational equity should seek to protect, and even to advance, this policy. Yet, many activists aren't working to reform affirmative action to include democratic merit. We are attempting to do away with democratic merit altogether. I think that, in part, this is because we stand divided. As white Jews, we can empathize with BIPOC being denied education, recognize the ways that affirmative action will help people from our own community, and understand how badly we need a well-informed democracy. The way forward isn't exactly clear, but, just like democracy, I know that the solution must include everyone.

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

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Problem may be easier to solve than we are doing here. Yes it’s not working and it’s not right for many or all. Applications have no need to say who, how they pay for school, what gender, what religion, or anything other than students grades, clubs, activities, and their paper written by them. We all kno this solves issue. Just my thought

How to cite this page

Mezrich, Sarah. "The Fight for Democratic Merit in College Admissions." 6 January 2023. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 8, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/fight-democratic-merit-college-admissions>.

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