When I was a high school junior in Kansas City, I took the 1975 PSAT. I did not respond to the optional race question, but when asked “Would you like to be considered for the National Achievement Scholarship Program for Outstanding Negro Students?” I answered “Yes” – even though I am white. That simple answer set in motion a series of events that I didn’t expect and that have indirectly influenced my thinking about merit, and may have provided one impetus to launch this website.
Here’s what happened. Several months after taking the PSAT/NMSQT, I learned that my score had qualified for the National Achievement Scholarship Program for Outstanding Negro Students (NASPONS) but that my school, without informing me, had rejected the scholarship on my behalf. I wrote to both the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Legal Aid for Western Missouri and sought their assistance in challenging the NASPONS qualifying standard. At the time, I was opposed to the lower-qualifying cutoff that the National Merit Scholarship Corporation applied in awarding the NASPONS than they used in qualifying students as semifinalists for the National Merit Scholarship. My attempts to challenge affirmative action by a non-profit organization came just before the United States Supreme Court addressed the question of state-sponsored affirmative action in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978). Both the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Legal Aid for Western Missouri turned down my request.
My answer to the scholarship question was sufficient for me to be recruited by more than 30 schools as an African-American student. I believe that Princeton University sent me a letter saying that I was one of 253 Afro-American and Caribbean high school students who were being encouraged to apply (and that no one receiving this letter in prior years had ever been denied admission). The Air Force ROTC sent me an unsolicited letter awarding me a full ROTC scholarship under a “special enhancement” program. The program was not officially couched as affirmative action or being race-contingent, but when I subsequently flown to Washburn University in Topeka to take a military aptitude assessment, I found myself in a room of more than 100 test takers as the only non-black. (Some of my high school friends started to refer this scholarship as my “AFRO-TC” award).
In the fall of my senior year, I published an article in in my school newspaper, entitled “Black Like Me…” which described some of the foregoing events and why I answered the PSAT question the way I did. Among other things I claimed:
The NMSC awards a scholarship based primarily on race. Unlike their standard National Merit Scholarship, which is only given to the top one and one half percent of college-bound students, they also administer the National Achievement Scholarship Program for Outstanding Negro Students. In striking contrast to the first, the Negro Scholarship is awarded to blacks scoring as low as the 86th percentile. Such a program is not discriminating on a valid criteria [sic], like intelligence, on an arbitrary standard which abrogates man’s right for an equal opportunity.
You can read the entire article here – complete with several punctuation and grammar errors.
To make sure that I was not admitted to college under false pretenses, I included a copy of my “Black Like Me” article with each of my applications. Some colleges were not happy. I came away from my Princeton interview excited that I had an engaging discussion about the pros and cons of affirmative action. But my parents were later told that my Princeton interviewer had described me as the most obnoxious candidate he had ever met. Because of me, Princeton could no longer send a letter saying that “no one receiving this letter in prior years had ever been denied admission.”
Since that time, I have substantially revised my views on race-based affirmative action. I’ve written several articles testing for race and gender discrimination. I have written repeatedly about affirmative action (for example, here and here and here). I’ve helped the Justice and Commerce departments redesign Affirmative Action during the Clinton administration’s “Mend Don’t End” initiative. I’ve served several times as an expert witness evaluating whether Affirmative Action programs are narrowly tailored to further compelling government interests. You can read my testimony to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights here. In contrast to the views expressed in my “Black Like Me . . .” article, I now think race-based Affirmative Action can at times be justified. I also have a much more expansive and contestable idea of merit.
I’m troubled by the state-contingent cutoffs of the National Merit Program, not because I have an absolute aversion to state-contingent qualifications, but because I’m concerned that the divergent cutoffs are not narrowly tailored to pursue merit or other values. Even though the awards describe themselves with the term “National Merit,” they are more aptly characterized as “state merit” scholarships. They are explicitly state-normed so that about one percent of the test takers in each state qualify as National Merit Semi-finalists regardless of how well or how poorly the test takers in that state perform relative to the rest of the nation. I am troubled that the cutoffs tend to be higher in states with higher proportions of African-American, Asian and Hispanic residents (see discussion of this estimate here). I am troubled that approximately 15 percent of qualifying semifinalists (see discussion of this estimate here) beat out test-takers who received higher scores. The Acadium Scholar award is our attempt to ameliorate these concerns.
Acadium Scholar is not affiliated in any way with the National Merit Scholarship Corporation or the PSAT/NMSQT.