Eugene Robinson Live

Apr 22, 2014

Chat with Post columnist Eugene Robinson about his latest columns and political news.

Hello, everybody, and welcome to our weekly chat. We have breaking news today: The Supreme Court has ruled that states can ban affirmative action in college admissions if they choose. It's another awful decision by a court that's on a roll (not in a good sense). Meanwhle, the situation in Ukraine seems to be getting more tense, not less. President Obama, after a well-earned victory dance about the Obamacare numbers, is heading to Asia. And today's column is about none of the above. It's a sendoff for Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose masterpiece, "One Hundred Years of Solitude," played a big role in shaping the course of my life. Let's get started.

Gene -- I loved your column today about the loss of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. "One Hundred Years of Solitude" in my opinion stands as one of the best literary works ever (and I can't right now think of the others, except, perhaps "The Honourable Schoolboy" in the Karla trilogy by John LeCarré). I was also struck by how you did what you did to prepare yourself for your career, step by step. How many people do that? How many people do we have left in this country who take advantage of their curiosity (if they have any) and explore like you did? You have shown how it's done, and done well. (no, I'm not your mother …)

Just to make clear, I didn't pay you for that post. Thanks so much. "One Hundred Years of Solitude" is pure magic, a stunning literary achievement. The preparation for the South America job, as I said, was accidental. I was incredibly fortunate to get the Nieman fellowship, which gave me a year off to study. Higher education, I feel, is often wasted on the young. 

Hi, Gene-- Doubtless you'll get many questions about today's appalling Supreme Court ruling (Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action), but here's mine. If , as Kennedy and his colleagues seem to be saying, Michigan voters have the absolute right to eliminate affirmative action--WITHOUT substituting another mechanism to ensure access to higher education for all citizens--then what is to stop them from opting out of enforcing the Civil Rights Act of 1964? And as a follow-up, any idea why Justice Breyer went along with this travesty?

I have long since given up trying to read these justices' minds. I understand that Justice Sotomayor wrote a strongly worded dissent. Is that right? I don't know if this ruling has implications for Civil Rights Act enforcement, since it's the federal government that assures compliance with what's left of the landmark legislation. But yes, this is a big blow to affirmative action.

Your article on climate change was accurate, but I think you should have hammered the conservatives in this country much harder. They know that the earth is warming and they know that there is overwhelming evidence that it will cause huge problems, so what is their response? They make the dishonest argument that the earth is not warming and even if it is, it's not caused by man. They fund think tanks with oil money to produce phony "research" debunking widely accepted conclusions on global warming so that the U.S. doesn't have to make any changes to our economy. Their dishonest campaign today will cost us dearly in the future.

I've written about climate change many times and I think I've done my share of hammering on conservatives, but perhaps they deserve a little more. Let me add to your list of indictments that many conservatives now oppose measures to fight climate change -- such as a carbon tax -- that they once supported. It's cynical, short-sighted, and, yes, our children and grandchildren will be angry that we saw what was happening and did nothing.

Today's decision is disturbing in a number of ways - it will make college campuses much less diverse, keep kids of color out of college and - oh, I don't know what else. I don't think people truly understand how important affirmative action can be as a criteria for college admissions. Our country will be the poorer because of it.

It's important to note that the court hasn't fully outlawed affirmative action, although that's the way these justices seem to be heading. Until they get there, today's ruling means it's up to the states. I have strong views about "states' rights" when it comes to matters of race, given my upbringing in the legally segregated South, but don't get me started. This decision means that for now, at least, these battles will be fought in the statehouses. The forces of truth and justice will have to enlist business leaders as allies, I believe. 

Is 58 pages long. Over half the length of the entire decision. Should be an interesting read, if you're into that sort of thing.

The thing is, it seems obvious to me that the federal government has an interest in upholding, defending and promiting affirmative action. Perhaps it wouldn't if we believed that racism was dead, but we know that it isn't. Conscious, unconscious and situational bias weighs against minorities from birth -- actually, from before birth, if you consider prenatal care -- until they fill out their college applications. But we're supposed to pretend this isn't true and act as if the playing field is level? While still taking into account other factors such as whether the applicant is a "legacy" with a parent who went to that school? Give me a break.

I've always thought of affirmative action akin to training wheels - we can take it off once we show we don't need them. So is the Supreme Court saying that racism is over? Does anyone want to tell that to Hank Aaron?

I wouldn't try telling that to Hank. I'm sure the justices wish that racism were over. I do, too. But it isn't. Just look at the de facto resegregation of secondary schools in so much of the country. Have we gone back to the idea that "separate but equal" is okay?

Can Michigan universities just take income into account? Because maybe the majority justices are right in that a dirt poor white Michigan farmer's kid should not be treated differently than a dirt poor inner city African American kid? Probably neither of them go to a high school with a whole lot of Advanced Placement courses. Is that still acceptable?

I don't think the Michigan constitutional amendment prohibits taking anything into account other than race. But while race and income are often intertwined, they are not the same thing. The evidence is clear that race plays a distinct role in disadvantaging some people and giving some others a leg up.

I thought colleges used affirmative action because they believed it was beneficial to have racial diversity, not because they were forced to. If they truly believed what they have been saying, then why should we expect that colleges will drop affirmative action en masse?

I don't believe colleges will, but I think conservative activists in many states will try to force them. Administrators at U of M, for example, have fought tooth and nail to try to keep affirmative action alive.

Bill Clinton had it; Obama has it. Does Hillary? I have seen her public speak, and she does look old and moves slow. And, let's face it, people are inspired by a candidates way of making you feel hopeful. So, I ask, do you think her age and appearance against a more vibrant male, such as Jeb Bush, Rand....,etc. will cost the Democrats?

Jeb Bush is no whippersnapper, and Rand Paul has the problem that Republicans hate half his ideas and most independents and Democrats hate the other half. I'm of the minority view that Hillary Clinton has not yet made a final decision to run. If she does, though, she'll look just fine.

College should be for the best and brightest, are you saying people of color cannot compete?

I'm saying that far too many people of color who most certainly can compete will not get the chance because of what neighborhoods they grew up on, what elementary and secondary schools they went to, and what conscious or unconscious biases others in the society may hold.

If the admissions office just states they are looking for universal diversity, why do they even have to tell those conservative that are leading this mess how they define diversity. If I were a college/university, I wouldn't divulge the specific details of how my admission process works (I'd keep that an internal confidential process and make sure that staff sign confidentiality agreements)

I don't think you could do that in a public university. Sunshine is often inconvenient, but it's a good thing.

Hi Gene, I am as liberal as they come, and I have always been uneasy with racially-based affirmative action. Not all people of color need a hand up, and plenty of white people do. I'd prefer to see needs-based AA, so a prep school graduate of color is less likely to take a spot from a first-in-his-family-to-college white kid.

If you went completely to a means-tested version of affirmative action you'd still be ignoring the effect of racism. I wish it didn't still exist, it's not what it used to be, but it still plays a role in this society. Oh, and you'd also have to get rid of "legacy" admissions, athletic scholarships and other ways in which students' applications get weighted, right?

I'm not surprised by the Supreme Court decision but I do get so tired of hearing people talk about AA but never ever talk about legacy. Most people say 'well why shouldn't blacks get in because of their grades, etc' but I never ever hear anyone say 'Joe, Jr. shouldn't get in just because Joe, Sr. is an alumni.' It annoys me that people think that blacks aren't qualified but legacy admissions are. Race we have come a long way baby but we still have miles to go.


Eugene Robinson : I'm saying that far too many people of color who most certainly can compete will not get the chance because of what neighborhoods they grew up on, what elementary and secondary schools they went to, and what conscious or unconscious biases others in the society may hold. I don't have a strongly formed opinion on AA, but as a science faculty member at a R1 public univerisity I do have a strong opinion about admitting students who are not prepared for college level work. Many incoming students don't have the required math, reading, and study skills necessary to succeed in college. Many of my colleagues have gone so far as to drop any and all math requirements (e.g. basic algebra) from intro science courses. While discrimination based on race is clearly wrong, I'm not so sure about discrimination based on preparation. It's unfortunate that students who attended subpar primary and secondary schools aren't adequately prepared, but shouldn't we solve that problem in primary and secondary school, rather than compromise on university education standards?

A very good question. Of course we should solve the problem before kids get to college, but let's be honest: I'm hearing from professors that many students of all backgrounds arrive needing remedial work. Admissions officers, it seems to me, ought to be able to look at all possible factors in order to assemble the kind of student body the school desires -- many believe, as I do, that diversity enhances the educational experience -- and to admit kids who, in their best judgment, will succeed.

Gene - I love your writing and have followed you forever. Today's column almost made me cry. Thank you for always relating back to your experiences in Latin America and the Caribbean. Thank you for remembering that large continent to the south and those islands that have produced so much beauty amid terrible poverty and the almost total lack of visibility to our neighbors in the north.

Thank you so much. Latin America and the Caribbean are wonderful, vibrant places that share this country's New World history. I wish more people had an appreciation for our terrific neighborhood.


That's all for today, folks. My time is up. I'll see you again next week!

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Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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