Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

There’s affirmative action, and then there’s “who you know”

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Newhouse News Service
May 27, 1995
c. Newhouse

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. _ In an elegant end run around affirmative action, Whitney Pidot Jr. is spending his spring break from Harvard College sunning in Palm Beach, then jetting to London for interviews with investment houses where he would like to work this summer.

While Pidot would have preferred a plum placement in Manhattan, he says the New York banks’ continuing obsession with affirmative action makes that impractical _ even with his considerable connections. When it comes to the ”most prized” summer internships, he says, ”If you’re not a minority, forget it. If you are a minority, it’s all but guaranteed.”

”I’ve really stretched my strings about as far as I can and I still seem to come up a little short of the opportunities these folks get,” Pidot laments. That is one way to look at it.

Another is to view Pidot as the beneficiary of a rich web of preferences older, thicker and more consequential than any affirmative action could weave, and all the better because they seem so right and natural, so much a given they’re almost assumed to have been earned. Blood, so to speak, vs. the watery gruel of mandated good intentions.

For Pidot it is not just a matter of growing up in the luxurious lap of Long Island’s Locust Valley, home to Morgans and Vanderbilts, of attending the Greenvale School and Philips Andover Academy, of being the son of Whitney Pidot Sr., managing partner of the as-prestigious-as-they-get New York law firm of Shearman & Sterling.

It is also the quite explicit ”tip” Ivy League and other elite schools give to admitting those, like Pidot, who are the children of alumni. Last year at Harvard, for example, 40 percent of the children of alumni _ commonly known as ”legacies” _ who applied were admitted, compared to a general admission rate of only 14 percent.

SURVEYING THE existing evidence, the Institute for the Study of Social Change at Berkeley concluded that, ”In American higher education, far more whites have entered the gates of the 10 most elite institutions through ‘alumni preference’ than the combined numbers of all the blacks and Chicanos entering through affirmative action.”

And the lineage tip is only the most tangible and obvious of the largely invisible preferences which by purpose or circumstance tend to privilege the privileged and transmit advantage, not just in Harvard Square and on Wall Street, but in every jot and tittle of American life.

Whether it’s trading stocks, hammering nails or mopping floors, jobs are had through kinship, friendship and word-of-mouth, whether it’s the old-boy network or the immigrant ethnic network, whether it’s old-school ties, or old- world ones. In a word: connections.

Effort is good. Merit is grand. But the iron law of getting a job is, ”It’s not what you know but who you know.”

While no one is arguing that family and friends should or could ever stop looking out for one another, it is certainly reasonable _ and for defenders of affirmative action necessary _ to portray race and gender preferences in a fuller and more balanced context.

”It’s a much more realistic backdrop for a discussion of affirmative action than this notion that if it weren’t for affirmative action, there would be equal opportunity,” says Mark Granovetter, a Northwestern University sociologist. ”That’s a dream world.”

”Imagine trying to pass a referendum that said you couldn’t find jobs through personal contacts. The whole country would come grinding to a halt. This is reality. This is how things happen.” says Granovetter.

In his book, ”Getting A Job: A Study of Contacts and Careers,” Granovetter dissected the ”luck” of ”having the right contact in the right place at the right time,” which he says, depending on the setting, accounts for between 30 percent and 70 percent of all hires.

IN FACT, it is so much a part of the fabric of daily life that it is unobserved even by those, indeed especially by those it benefits. You get a job through an uncle, or his friend, or a neighbor or a second-hand referral and it is usually seen as no big deal, the stuff of life or luck or happenstance.

A day or a week or a year later, you don’t think about how you got that job. You probably figure you were plenty well-qualified for it and that you’ve done fine at it. You may well think you deserve better. You hardly wonder or worry how you would have fared if you were one of those mokes who has to answer a newspaper ad or a sign in the window cold and unconnected, and interview with someone who may not only not know you but may not be particularly familiar or comfortable or inclined to think highly of people who look like you.

To the beneficiary, it all seems utterly benign. But the flip side of each inside hire is an outsider left out. As critics of affirmative action make plain, the flip side of preference is discrimination.

”It’s not intended to exclude anyone but it does,” says Granovetter. ”It’s sort of staring you right in the face. But people look right past it. It’s only when you add it all up.”

The most invisible preference in college admissions is the tip for geographic diversity, which also profoundly affects the awarding of National Merit Scholarships. Its name aside, the National Merit Scholars are the top scorers in their respective states. For example, the qualifying score in Mississippi this year was 185, but in Washington, D.C., and Massachusetts a student had to score 208 to qualify. It is, in essence, an affirmative action program for Mississippians. For the same reason, President Clinton was better positioned for a Rhodes Scholarship coming from Arkansas than if he had applied from his college perch at Georgetown University.

INTERESTINGLY, according to Berkeley sociologist Jerome Karabel and other scholars, both the tip for geographic diversity and for legacies were in their own ways devised in the 1920s by Harvard, Princeton and Yale as covert ways to diminish Jewish enrollment.

These days, about 12 percent of Yale students are legacies, and about a quarter of the student body at Notre Dame. At Harvard, admissions director Marlyn McGrath Lewis says 9 percent to 10 percent of undergraduates are legacies, though in his 1990 book, ”The University: An Owner’s Manual,” former dean Henry Rosovsky, now a member of the governing Harvard Corporation, put the grand total of alumni and faculty children, who also get a tip, at 16 percent to 20 percent.

By contrast, 9 percent of this year’s freshman class is black.

Five years ago, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights investigated Harvard admissions to determine whether its legacy and athletic tips had the effect of diminishing Asian-American enrollment. While the department determined that the tips had that impact, they concluded that the legacy and athletic preferences were not discriminatory in intent and were legitimately in the school’s financial self-interest.

Not everyone thinks the lineage tip is defensible. In 1990, Sen. Robert Dole, a graduate of Washburn Municipal University, wrote then-incoming Education Secretary Lamar Alexander suggesting the legacy preference smacked of a ”caste system.”’

Pidot, for his part, feels that in this age of affirmative action the legacy tip merely serves to neutralize the negatives that now attach to anyone applying from a privileged background, though in his case he did not feel the tip did enough _ his admission to Harvard was deferred a year.

When he was nine, Pidot’s father missed his birthday because of a business trip to Jakarta. On his return, he offered to take his son and a friend anywhere in the world he wanted to go. Pidot’s reply: ”Harvard and Andover.”

BUT NOW, he says, ”Harvard will look at anyone with a background like that and think, ‘You’ve had opportunity at every turn,’ and they turn the discounting factor way up and now you’re right back with someone or below someone who had no opportunity and as such has only had to spend half an hour a week on homework instead of the 10 hours you’ve been spending since the fourth grade.”

But, Pidot’s combined SAT score of 1,300 was 100 points below the Harvard mean _ and five points below the mean for blacks at Harvard _ though his ACT scores, which Harvard also accepts, were more competitive. It could be argued that the legacy tip proved crucial to Pidot.

”Everyone of course wants to have the advantage but no one wants to believe they are the advantaged group,” observes Carl Engstrom, a legacy freshman from Edina, Minn., just outside Minneapolis.

”It’s nothing you’re proud of,” says Engstrom, who sees the mounting tide against affirmative action as the death throes of white guilt. Like a phoenix from those ashes, he says, rises the specter of the white male victim. ”I still don’t think the white male as victim is widely accepted but I don’t think it’s as scoffed at as it used to be.”

Of his own circumstance, Engstrom says, ”I personally don’t think I got in because I’m a legacy, but I agree that if you’re going to try to get rid of affirmative action in acceptance policy you should get rid of the preference for legacies.”

But, he adds, referring to his whiteness, ”I think that the thing is you can’t get rid of advantages for someone like me. They are always going to exist, whether they are made explicit or not.”


Written by jonathantilove

August 25, 2012 at 3:58 am

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