Affirmative Action: The Institutionalization of Racial Discrimination

Affirmative ActionMy fellow NSB Editor Brian Williams recently wrote an article, “The Continued Need for Affirmative Action.” He argues that affirmative action (AA) helps “break the institutionalized cycle of poverty,” that racial diversity is a laudable goal in higher education, and that opponents of AA are not so much concerned about racial discrimination as they are about their own self-interest in gaining admission. I’d like to offer a different perspective.

Let’s be clear. AA cannot cure poverty. That’s like trying to cure cancer with Tylenol. Disparities in educational opportunities in our communities must be tackled from an early stage and along the entire course of K-12 education. To use AA as a last-ditch measure of economic balancing might seem like a noble effort to guarantee upward mobility for poor students. Economic disparity, however, is a systematic problem that AA can do little to solve. But more fundamentally, and at the heart of the issue for me, is that the use of race as a qualification (or disqualification) in college admissions is wrong and imposes societal costs that proponents of AA ignore.

mlkDr. Martin Luther King, Jr. hoped for a country where his children would “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” I share this sentiment entirely. But AA approves of a policy where people are judged by the color of their skin. While I believe in the inherent value of diversity in education, creating a “desirable” racial mix on campus (or as Brian calls it, “icing on the cake”) by qualifying a student because he belongs to a “desirable” race and disqualifying another student because he belongs to an “undesirable” race is racial discrimination plain and simple. The ends don’t justify the means.

I am not blind to the racial tensions that continue to exist within our society. But AA exacerbates, rather than alleviates, those tensions. Let’s be honest: In the back of everyone’s mind is whether the black or Hispanic student obtained admission on his own merits or whether he needed a racial handicap to get in. Imagine the stigma that the black or Hispanic student must carry around with him, a badge of scholastic inferiority (rightly or wrongly perceived) that would be damaging to anyone’s self-esteem. And imagine the sense of unfairness that the white or Asian student must feel in being denied admission to a university that practices AA, when he worked so hard to achieve scores that exceed the student-body average and when his resume was filled with extracurricular activities. To declare, as Brian does, that any opponent of AA must be acting out of a “sense of entitlement” and would “view any system of admissions that leaves them out as being unfair” is to ignorantly dismiss this genuine sense of injustice.

college-admissions1I’d like to address a slightly more sophisticated argument in favor of AA. Many college applicants, the argument goes, are comparably qualified (that is, once they achieve a desired baseline mix of academic success, demonstrated leadership, musical talents, and/or athletics). In these circumstances, the argument runs, it is proper for universities to use race as a determinant factor to achieve racial diversity. Using race as a “soft” factor in this way is comparable to using other factors – like geographical background, academic concentration, leadership, gender, or socioeconomic status – to promote a more diverse learning environment. And such factors may outweigh hard factors like test scores and GPA. Consider the following example:

(1) Minority race girl who grew up in a single-parent household, worked two jobs, was student body president and scoed an 1850 on her SATs and received a 3.6 GPA.

(2) Caucasian male from an affluent neighborhood, 3-year Varsity Lacrosse player, 2100 SAT and 3.8 GPA.

Who is the “more qualified” candidate is hard to say, but at least — the argument goes – race, as part of a holistic evaluation of an applicant, should be considered as a factor, especially if the student body is already predominantly composed of Caucasians.

I acknowledge that a true meritocracy is nearly impossible to achieve, and even if it were attainable, it would boil down to some kind of algorithm. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of college admission practices becoming as mechanical as that. After all, the admissions process is an art, not a science. But, in the end, race is not necessary to achieve the kind of diversity that is conducive to a challenging learning environment. And in the above example, applicant (1) may still win a spot over applicant (2), because of other, race-neutral factors that make applicant (1) more desirable.

I do not doubt the benevolent intentions of those who support AA. But using racial discrimination to promote a perceived societal good is a species of reasoning that was also employed by those who honestly thought that school segregation was beneficial to society and to blacks themselves. Blacks would feel more at home among their own race; they would have more leadership opportunities; and they would achieve academic success more readily – the segregationists would say. Racial discrimination today, they said then, would promote a better tomorrow. Substitute “segregation” for “racial diversity” and the arguments are nearly identical. Segregation and affirmative action are both wrong, because they both discriminate on the basis of race.

In the end, the only solution to all these college admissions debates is to reduce the glaring inequities in the K-12 public education system. If every kid had access to good teachers, safe schools, nutritious lunches, and comparably rigorous academic standards, you could rightfully assume that a student’s performance was a fair reflection of their effort and ability. Until such a system is achievable, the admissions process will continue to be a subjective crapshoot. But at the very least, we can and should leave race out of the equation.

Sidebar Food for Thought:  In the interest of presenting arguments for the other side as well, one friend posed this very tough question: If you don’t see the consideration of gender as sexist, how can you see the consideration of race as racist?

Special thanks to the sparring group who always continue to challenge my ideas and provoke interesting conversations.

Author: Paul G. Lee

Paul is a displaced Southern California native who currently resides in Washington D.C.. His post-collegiate experience was highlighted by his move to the East Coast where he worked briefly for Congress. After his stint as a public servant, he jumped into the private sector and currently works as a consultant with a D.C.-based technology firm.

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  1. Let me start by saying that I think this was a well-written article and that Paul perfectly summarized my article in his opening. I also appreciate the scenario he described of the two applicants. That is the reality of AA whereas most people seem to think it’s a quota system despite quotas being illegal for more than 35 years or a system that takes someone who is horribly unqualified and gives them a spot over someone who is supremely qualified.
    Now, all this said, I have issues with this article. I guess my biggest one is comparing affirmative action to segregation. That is on its face a laughable claim. “Substitute ‘segregation’ for ‘racial diversity’ and the arguments are nearly identical.” Am I the only person doesn’t see those two concepts or the mindsets behind them as being substitutable? If you substitute those two words for each other in the same argument then you end up with arguments for the exactly opposite things, by definition. One was about keeping races apart and one is about bringing them together. Furthermore, segregation was about 100% separation and AA is about making schools that, at most, better reflect the racial makeup of the country by working a bit on the margins of applicant pools. Paul also makes the claim that using race as a factor to benefit some means, by definition, a school is telling others their race is not wanted. This, once again, confuses the issue since AA is only used “against” a race once that race is well-represented or, more likely, over represented at a school. That is hardly the same thing as saying someone “belongs to an ‘undesirable’ race because a race is a whole group of people, not a few individuals.” Saying we have too many white students is not the same thing as saying whites aren’t allowed. Not in a million years is that the same thing.

    I did appreciate Paul’s concerns that blacks and Hispanics might be looked down on if AA is allowed to continue. But let me just calm his fears for us and say that of all the racial stereotypes in our country that affect us negatively, people questioning why we’re at a good school is the least of my concerns and is a thought I can drive from a person’s head within the first few minutes of talking to them (not that I honestly give a shit what a bigot like that thinks about me), and so can many of my minority friends. But just to show how racial stereotypes work, Asians in most parts of the country benefit from AA, but because their stereotype is that of being smart I guess Paul isn’t worried about how they will be looked at. The idea that people look down on minorities who go to good colleges is a reason to get rid of AA seems to make a great case for why it is so important that we do more to end the racial segregation in our schools and why people need to be exposed to each other more if that is the thought in their heads when they first see a minority at their university.

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    • Thanks Brian. Always appreciate the feedback and your opinions. In terms of segregation, I wasn’t comparing the two institutions, but rather the logic that was employed. I think that there is a subtle but crucial difference. I obviously don’t think that segregation and AA are the same thing.
      Also, to me, over-representation is not necessarily a terrible thing if they deserve to be there. The idea of “too many white students” ignores the fact that many of those students performed better either academically or extra-curricular(ly) than their minority counterparts.

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      • And for the last point about the sense of fairness. We’re already seeing this diversity mentality being adopted in the workplace. Explicit quotas are illegal but diversity initiatives within companies are not. So it’s much more than just at the university level, it is pervasive in the post-college workplace as well.

        And again, I didn’t even talk about all the government funded programs like Minority Serving Institutions (like HBCUs, HSIs, AANAPISIs) who get funding from the government. Add that to the $40 billion dollars we spend on Pell Grants, and I think we are doing a fairly decent job of addressing (at least some) of the inequalities that we are facing. Like I said in my article, I think that there are economic and therefore educational disparities in our nation. But I don’t think that AA is the proper instrument to address this. It’s much more systematic.

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        • I’ve never really seen anyone go off against diversity programs since they are voluntary, aren’t quota driven and there is clearly a huge and historical lack of it in large companies and in many professions (law for one)…..but anyway, I think you have to consider why they are looking for diversity, which in large part is about getting more women (Funny that 75% of society has to receive special outreach to try to overcome the historical advantages white men continue to enjoy). Work places want it for the same reasons colleges want it. They find there are benefits. It’s funny because in your article you seem to concede that diversity is a worthwhile aim but then don’t actually support it any where else and actually speak against it (see your comments). Don’t be PC on my account. A non-diverse work environment and learning environment is not as good as a diverse one. Experts and studies show this. People with different backgrounds come from issues and problems with different opinions and solutions. There are very real and tangible reasons to want diversity that start with making a place better and have the added advantage of bringing some concept of fairness to our society.

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          • So while I recognize diversity to be a good thing, I’m against AA as a method of achieving that. I’m more about balancing social inequalities as I mentioned in my closing paragraph. That’s the only real way to solve the issue.

      • No comment I read spoke about the real reason AA exists in America; White Supremacy. This institution is so far reaching and dominant until it’s extrication from the fundamental culture of the country and EVERY citizen is still too huge to even talk about. AA is a feint; an awful sarcasm built to make the minority feel like he actually has a shot at counterbalance. I view those who seek to dismantle this token gesture as a petty lot (look at the numbers), but overall its positive phenomenon. I really hope they succeed. Take the mask down and let’s see the real ugly. Maybe then we can have a meaningful dialogue.

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    • “once that race is well-represented or, more likely, over represented at a school.”

      Here is where you apply a double standard and is the Achilles heal of your argument. Who gets to say at what percentage any race becomes “well” or better yet, “over represented”?

      You’re concluding that discrimination is not actually discrimination if that majority of the student body is white. I would argue that you are far from qualified to redefine the meaning of a word and all the connotations that come with it. It is discrimination, or it is not. There is no soft line or even tolerable amount of discrimination.

      So let me apply your logic the other way. Detroit is 80%-85% black. So what if the largest corporations there decided that blacks were “over represented” and decided they needed more white workers; so they adjusted their hiring practices to seek out and make more valuable, white workers. You would, for certain, see this as discrimination. And yet, you don’t see it for what it is when applied the way you want it to be so applied.

      Any time you under or over value someone simply because their skin color, you have just committed discrimination. You are not allowed to say “well I didn’t discriminate against the 1st 65% so turning away the rest is not discrimination”. Because…IT IS!

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  2. One of the comments I got the most to my article was that we could still get a good racial mix at top schools without consider race as a factor, but then no explanation as to how that could be done. Paul says the same thing in his article but then doesn’t go on the explain how except looking at extracurriculars and resumes. I have no clue how that can be said to ensure a good racial mix in a colorblind application process. But aside from that, I find it ironic that Paul mentions extracurriculars in the same paragraph he accused me of ignoring injustices since part of me building my case that opposition to AA is unprincipled was showing the history of extracurriculars in the application process and how they were used by whites to keep Jews out of the Ivy Leagues. The college application process has been gamed for years and rules are changed to keep those who are “worthy” in and the “others” out. The elite and top schools (because that’s what we’re really talking about here) are meant for a very specific group of people and were meant to keep the rich and elite rich and elite. This whole AA debate goes on without talking about legacy programs and the known fact that rich and powerful people can get their kids into the best schools with almost no regard for their personal qualifications. I’m willing to bet rich kids at Ivy schools displace far more students than AA.

    While seeing the opposition to AA causes me to think that in some ways it must be working since rich white people are trying so hard to get this handful of spots back, I can appreciate enough people feel aggrieved by an AA system based on race and that it being based on race allows people like Paul to use the right words (even if incorrectly) to cause me to look closely at the fairness of the system. But in my article I made it very clear that I would support replacing raced based AA with something that either uses socio-economics or George Bush’s top 10% Texas plan, but Paul was mum on this whole issue. Could it be that these two suggested changes that appear to be more fair and race free on their face still dont make winners out of the people Paul thinks should be winning?

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    • Completely against legacy preference.

      Honestly, I don’t think it’s the rich, white person who are trying so hard to get their handful of spots back. My guess is that it’s just the average, middle class family that has a kid that is on the border of admissions but didn’t get in.

      I’m against Bush’s 10% plan because I think that’s just stupid. It obviously handicaps a lot of qualified (at least from a basic test score perspective) students. For example, being in the top 10% at some suburban school in California was much more difficult that being in the top 10% of say, Compton High School, or some other urban area. In fact, the top 10% at Compton might not even be in the 50th percentile at these other schools.

      So, their sense of entitlement, as you talk about in your article, comes from the fact that they worked hard. Why are we penalizing the students for the socio-economic position that their parents (through hard work mostly) put them in? I understand giving weight to social and economic situations for some applicants… like having to work two jobs, coming from a broken family, and other hardships not expressed in test scores and grades. But to demonize a “sense of entitlement” is completely unfair.

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      • OK, I feel like you’re walking a very thin line here in view socio-economic AA as ok but not race based. It’s clear your concern is clearly with the “hard working” kid who had all the advantages. But here’s the thing Paul the kid had advantages and was then just a mediocre student. You are over valuing how much schools use race as a decideer and undervaluing how much the advantages of being rich and going to good schools helps.

        Regardless, if you agree socio-economic AA is fine, then i guess we have come to a point of agreement. Though something tells me even in that system you are more worried about the “hard working” rich kid getting to benefit from the advantages he’s already had in life from his “hard working” parents so he can go to his first pick school.

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        • Well I’m not well versed in how admissions officers give weight to certain categories… like socio economic status, geography, others. But that’s why I said that I’m also against admissions being as mechanical as ssimple test scores. It is comprehensive and I’m fine with giving some extra consideration a disadvantaged person.

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        • You do know that far more white people are poor than blacks yes? Far more white people are undereducated. But you will claim that the percentages are disproportionate right? So more white should be poor than blacks cause there are simply more whites. conversely, blacks make up a higher percentage and therefore are over represented.

          The counter to that argument is again Detroit. Detroit is one of my favorite cities to bring up and here is why. Detroit is 80%-85% black. They have over 62% black owned businesses. They had a black mayor for many years. They are the perfect microcosm of what America would look like if black and white roles were reversed. So if your theory is correct and it’s the system that is holding blacks down, then Detroit should not be affected right? After all, they set their own rules and have the numbers to back it up. So one would assume that they have lower black unemployment and even lower crime than cities that are 80-85% white. Sadly, we know this is not true right? So what this proves is that there is a more inherent issue with the black populace. There is something other than whitey holding them down. I invite you to have a gander at the data.

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    • While reading your link, I found your answer in the comments section. I will quote it here. But it would appear that you would rather cry racism than to actually ask and find the real “why”.

      “I support people being able to speak their minds freely. This was an awesome video! However, I was a math minor in college, so I always like to do the numbers. In the state of California, they have only a 6% African American population, so 3.3% male enrollment would be relatively close to the appropriate number. The state has a 40% white population and a 39% hispanic population. However, those two ethnic groups only make up a 28% and 18% enrollment at UCLA. So, if the argument is to be that the school is racist, it is mostly against hispanics (white coming in a distant second). And, mostly FOR Asians. They make up 13% of California’s entire population, but take up 38% of the School’s admissions. My guess is… they try to take the best students.”

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