I was recruited to Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, one of the top private schools in the United States, as a black-Korean kid from Ohio. The group A Better Chance (ABC) brought me there in 1986. I still had to apply, however, though I got in and matriculated because of their massive needs-based financial aid package. Andover had taken it upon themselves to affirmatively act upon a desire to have diversity in its student body.
I was a pretty smart kid, but no prodigy. I got all As in everything throughout my three years at a public middle school, but still struggled a bit when I started at Andover. I maintained a B+ average there while being an orchestra nerd who played the cello on an instrument lent to me by the school—a veritable Stradivarius compared to what I had had at home.
But I learned I wasn’t any slower than most of my white classmates, many of whom had been in good schools since they were in kindergarten. Frankly, I was actually a good deal quicker than a lot of them—not so much with numbers, but with words and ideas. So I got fed into the same fast track of privilege that basically only WASPs had been enjoying for generations, and got into Brown University in 1990 pretty easily.
Was I an affirmative action checkbox for them? Probably. Did I need the leg up? Probably not. But it was the ‘90s and that’s the way it worked back then.
But I never bought into the idea of being a so-called “Affirmative Action baby.” And that’s the one thing Stephen Carter got right in his book by same name. The accusation of being at Andover or Brown because of AA was a particularly niggling one, something that was always there in the back of my mind, attempting to undermine my intellectual confidence. I connected with that element of the book, but never bought that as a reason to remove AA as a policy.
But that niggling fear of being “found out” as a fraud—“imposter syndrome,” as some call it—was always there. I was lucky, because I got to prove it to myself again and again, most meaningfully in Gordon S. Wood’s colonial history class, in which I initially messed up the midterm and landed a disappointing B in the class.
But Andover taught me I could hang with any of the New England, blue-blooded white kids whose families really ran American society (my graduating class had a Goodyear and a Murdoch). I was the only blackish kid in the class. And no matter my educational pedigree, black skin burns and the intellectual doubt that it threatens to bring to its wearer is as palpable and heavy as an overcoat. It didn’t matter that my mother is Korean—one drop of black blood, blackness in any recognizable, renders one classifiably “black,” and there’s some definite insecurity that comes with that.
But I knew I could master professor Wood’s class. He was a master lecturer, so I killed myself to get an A from him the next semester, in what was considered the most hardcore class in the history department. (Yes, Wood is the guy Matt Damon’s character references in his debate with the asshole graduate student at the bar in Good Will Hunting, and I totally got the reference when I saw the film, which was the nerdiest moment in an already nerdy life.)
I got an A in that damn class, which, yes, was, a bit above my level—but that’s how school works, Mr. Scalia. Great teachers push you to excel, and you exceed your previous limits. That was one of several moments when I was able to increase the power on my positive-pressure energy-defense shield against vile, racist messages, such as the one Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia is reviving—one that says that you and your black skin don’t belong, that niggers play basketball and dance real good, not read hard books and use big words, or learn about science.
If you believe that stuff, you won’t excel. But my years at the same boarding school attended by all the Bushes gave me the intellectual confidence I needed to push back against those racist messages, back before black nerds existed in broader culture, let alone the notion of a black president.
Anyway, my education, the inculcation of intellectual habits and confidence, along with college counsellors with the private-office numbers of every admissions officer at every top college in the country, helped get me into Brown without much trouble. Not fair? White people of America, please. When has it ever been fair?
The only reason people complain about the Affirmative Action gateway to college is because it is the most visible, reifiable, and relatively transparent one. Far more so than the hidden worlds of legacy admissions or athletic recruitment. This invites scrutiny. Abigail Fisher is mad because she felt she didn’t get a fair shake from the University of Texas’s admissions committee. Well, people who look like me haven’t gotten a fair shake for a couple of centuries now.
Andover’s charter dates back to 1778—for real. George Washington housed his troops in what is now the student center. Brown was founded in 1764. What I learned from my privileged New England boarding school and Ivy League university is that there has been affirmative action for WASPs since before the United States even existed. It’s called group privilege, and it’s been in play way longer Affirmative Action.