“I really fucking hate injustice,” Peter Schmidt told an audience at Busboys & Poets in August at a release party for his new book. That statement, not to mention the title of the book in question—Color and Money: How Rich White Kids Are Winning the War Over College Affirmative Action—might suggest he’s authored a partisan screed. But Schmidt is well aware that affirmative action, which he’s covered for the Chronicle of Higher Education since 1996, is a giant gray area.
“I try in the book to stay very agnostic about affirmative action,” says Schmidt, a 43-year-old Glover Park resident. “If you read the book carefully again and again, you won’t really see me say affirmative action is a good or a bad thing.”
He’s perfectly comfortable saying it’s a broken thing, though. In the book, he argues that 15 percent of the undergrads at selective universities are white kids who, academically speaking, have no business being there—their grades and test scores were subpar, but they benefited by being athletes or the children of alumni, or through working some other personal connection. Colleges accommodate them to keep the donations flowing, but Schmidt notes that the urge to fill coffers has warped the world of minority admissions as well. Affirmative action, he says, has evolved from a social-justice program responding to the civil-rights struggles of the ’60s “to a much more pragmatic thing where you just want to produce black graduates. An upper-middle-class African-American kid who’s a doctor’s son and has solid SAT scores and good grades is a much more attractive prospect to these colleges than a kid from Anacostia who is going to need financial help.”
Schmidt came to the Chronicle from Education Week and the Northern Virginia Daily in the Shenandoah Valley, where he covered race-related issues. (A local swimming pool was still segregated when he’d arrived in the late ’80s.) But working his beat attuned him to the fact that class plays a strong role in the affirmative action wars, too—selective schools often underrepresent top students from lower-class schools, regardless of race. He understands, though, that playing fair means courting financial collapse. “If I were to wave a magic wand and make every college out there be class-representative, so that at Georgetown the bottom fourth of society was a fourth of the students and every quartile was represented, a lot of colleges would be in financial trouble,” he says. “They’d have to give a lot more money in terms of financial aid, they’d have a lot less money donated to them.”
The subject is personal for Schmidt. In 1971, his father lost his bid for a seat on the city council of his hometown in suburban Michigan, after supporting a proposal to allow a group of black children to move from Detroit to attend the local schools. Schmidt mentions this story in the opening pages of Color and Money, which he began writing after his father’s death in 2004. Schmidt writes in the book’s dedication that his father died of Alzheimer’s disease, though he doesn’t note just how much his father’s death pushed him to request a sabbatical and start typing.
“In some ways, I was motivated by saying to myself, ‘Holy shit, I may only have 20 more years of an intellectual life left,’” he says. “‘I gotta get off my ass and do this.’”
Schmidt reads at 12:30 p.m., Monday, Nov. 19, at Borders Books & Music, 18th & L Streets NW, free, (202) 466-4999.