My 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.
Dr. 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.
I’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.