This is the second op-ed discussing Affirmative Action and what it means to students. Read co-founder Steven Gu’s post here.
On June 24th, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) made a decision on Fisher v. The University of Texas at Austin (the long awaited Affirmative Action case) that left many people slightly confused. The vague ruling essentially stated that although Affirmative Action is constitutional, it must be subject to strict scrutiny when being reviewed by the lower courts. With the debate of Affirmative Action’s future alive as ever following the ambiguous ruling, it’s time we take a closer look at what exactly affirmative action is and does – to minorities, to whites, and to race relations throughout our country.
There are many reasons why people argue Affirmative Action is still necessary. The first that comes to mind is to prevent discrimination – clearly a very righteous goal. However, justifying Affirmative Action by claiming that it “prevents discrimination” is perhaps one of the greatest social ironies of this day, because the way by which it prevents discrimination is, well, by more discrimination.
The Discrimination Question
Using race as a factor (no matter how minor) in determining the ultimate fate of a college applicant is as discriminatory as it gets. One can only wonder how an admissions team determines which overworked, perfect scoring, merit scholars to admit and inevitably, which to deny. Many times the answer comes down to what we call hooks. Being a minority (or having a reputable last name, being an athletic recruit, or claiming legacy status) is a hook. Thus, race can be and is used as a “tie-breaker” of sorts in the difficult game of college admissions.
In other words, Student A and Student B are identical on paper, but Student B is black or Hispanic, thus giving him the edge over Student A. I’m not saying this happens all the time. I’m not saying it happens incredibly often. But I am saying that it does happen; and in the age of the CommonApp when 30,000 + students are applying to UChicago, Yale, Harvard, and the like, this type of decision is made somewhat frequently.
“Discrimination – treatment or consideration of or making a distinction in favor of or against a person or thing based on the group, class, or category to which that person or thing belongs rather than on individual merit” – so by definition, Affirmative Action is discriminatory against white people as well as overrepresented minorities like Asians. White and Asian applicants “lose spots” to legacies, athletic recruits, and many more. That fact is not disputed. But it in no way means they aren’t also “losing spots” to minorities on the basis of race – i.e. discrimination.
The “Diversity on Campus” Argument
Another popular justification for Affirmative Action is that diversity is necessary for a quality education. I don’t think anyone is arguing with that point. The problem with using this justification is that it implicitly gives “diversity” the narrow definition of diversity of race. Diversity of race has nothing to do with quality of education. The kind of diversity that contributes to learning and knowledge is diversity of opinion. Confusing diversity of race and opinion, or worse, claiming that the two are synonymous, is inarguably demeaning (and almost insulting) to minorities. Obviously, not all minorities have the same opinions, come from the same backgrounds, or share the same morals and ideals. So yes, colleges, please choose as diverse of an incoming class as you can – luckily you don’t need to know an applicant’s race in order to do so.
The Slavery Debate
“We need Affirmative Action to make up for slavery and years of racism,” is, in my opinion, the most outrageous of justifications. I was contemplating not even including it in this article, for it is simply too easy to tear apart (and the justification is no longer used by many people); but just for the record: I have never owned slaves. My parents have never owned slaves. My grandparents have never owned slaves. No one in my entire family has ever owned slaves. Why would anyone punish the generation that has made the most and greatest strides for racial equality in order to make up for the sins of a corrupt past that not everyone shares? Better yet, since when do two wrongs make a right? Making up for implies punishing. And there is no one left alive to punish for the terrible history that was slavery other than innocent offspring of the white population.
The Claim of Helping the Disadvantaged
America prides itself on its equality of opportunity, and to me, the most convincing justification for Affirmative Action comes with the claim that it is designed to create an equal opportunity for those with a disadvantage. The claim is admirable; yet Affirmative Action once again fails to adhere to the premise. When one says “with a disadvantage”, he or she is assumingly referring to those living in poverty. It is true that a disproportionate amount of those living in poverty are, in fact, minorities. But Affirmative Action has done next to nothing to help those exact minorities in poverty.
The minorities (and whites) who live in the poorer districts of the United States are most of the time not even applying to college. How does Affirmative Action help the group of people in need if that specific group does not even open itself up to the possible benefits of the program to start with (Hint: it doesn’t)? The main group of people Affirmative Action is benefitting is made up of already affluent, already advantaged, middle and upper class minorities – people who do not need a leg up when it comes to college admissions. It isn’t helping the disadvantaged minority; it’s helping the already advantaged minority over the advantaged white, the disadvantaged white, and the disadvantaged minority. As Stanford Magazine mentions, “If preferences were truly meant to remedy disadvantage, they would be given on the basis of disadvantage, not on the basis of race.”
The Overarching Problem with Affirmative Action
There is one last point against Affirmative Action that I’d like to bring up. I saved it for last because it is not a direct contradiction of any of the reasons frequently used to back up Affirmative Action. What is often overlooked is that Affirmative Action only provides fuel to the fire of racial tension, awkward stereotypes, and all around bigotry.
Because of Affirmative Action (and this is a societal problem), the merits, talents, achievements, and excellence of many minorities unfortunately exist under a perpetual shadow of doubt to many skeptical (white) people across the nation. It is often under question whether or not a minority actually earned his or her way into Harvard or is simply there to fulfill a diversity quota. I want to make it clear that I believe this umbrella of skepticism is terrible, and do not dare justify it, but I believe it is spreading and growing because of Affirmative Action policies.
End a racially-based Affirmative Action program, and you effectively end any and all excuses to carry on with the prejudice that minorities have not earned their own way. It is this exact aspect of Affirmative Action that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas speaks of when he says his Yale law degree is “worth 15 cents”. Thomas, in his concurring opinion in Fisher v. The University of Texas at Austin, elaborates, “Slaveholders argued that slavery was a ‘positive good’ that civilized blacks and elevated them in every dimension of life. A century later, segregationists similarly asserted that segregation was not only benign, but good for black students. Following in these inauspicious footsteps, the University would have us believe that its discrimination is likewise benign. I think the lesson of history is clear enough: Racial discrimination is never benign… The University’s professed good intentions cannot excuse its outright racial discrimination any more than such intentions justified the now-denounced arguments of slaveholders and segregationists.”
What Do We Do?
Now that I’ve argued why Affirmative Action as we know it is not working effectively and is only prolonging discrimination as well as racial tension, it’s time for some proposals on how to fix this broken system. First of all, the only way to eliminate discrimination in college admissions is to base the entire system off of a color blind process. Only an inherently racist system considers race as an admissions factor. This calls for a complete end to racially-based Affirmative Action.
The alternative: a socioeconomically-based Affirmative Action program that gives preference to disadvantaged students as opposed to simply minorities. Not only does this solve the problem of “the shadow of skepticism,” but it also assures that the right applicants are receiving the extra nudge. Although a socioeconomically-based Affirmative Action program would effectively mean an end to “need-blind admissions”, I only question exactly how “need-blind” they currently are when it is mandatory that one checks off either “yes” or “no” when being asked if he or she plans to apply for financial aid.
Additionally, in order to get more disadvantaged, lower-income students applying to college, it would be extremely beneficial to institute mentorship-style programs in poorer areas to truly teach kids about the benefits of college as well as the ins and outs of the application process. Admittedly, a program like this would cost a lot of money that our government clearly doesn’t have at this point in time. But I leave that up to the policy makers to discuss – that, or perhaps more effectively, allow the program to be implemented by a slew of nonprofits, volunteers, and peer-mentors. The alternatives are tricky, and the situation far from simple – but anything, even an end to Affirmative action Altogether, is better than the current, racially charged, backwards practice that we have grown so accustomed to. It is time for significant change.