Pro / Con: Should we have Affirmative Action?

What follows is a dialogue between two parties representing typical arguments for and against affirmative action. Blue text will represent an argument against race-based affirmative action, and the regular black text will represent advocating for. Race-based affirmative action degrades meritocracy by introducing a factor to the admissions process which is beyond the applicant’s control.  Perhaps…
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/auds2020/" target="_self">Audrey Chen</a>

Audrey Chen

May 29, 2020

What follows is a dialogue between two parties representing typical arguments for and against affirmative action. Blue text will represent an argument against race-based affirmative action, and the regular black text will represent advocating for.

Race-based affirmative action degrades meritocracy by introducing a factor to the admissions process which is beyond the applicant’s control. 

Perhaps race is arbitrary, then we must also admit that many other aspects of the college application are also irrelevant. Colleges already consider a variety of factors which the student cannot control from geographic location to “legacy” status. In the same way that a student might be admitted into a given university for being born a certain race, another might also be admitted because they were born in an academically uncompetitive area. Perhaps one cannot help being born a certain race, but no more than they can help being born the child of a legacy. Colleges need a system to differentiate between applicants, and although race may be arbitrary, it is no more arbitrary than factors which are already accepted. 

We should not perform race-based affirmative action for students for the same reason we should not perform height-based affirmative action for basketball players. We evaluate people based on visible and demonstrated merit. Whether they excelled by virtue of birth instead of skill is irrelevant. 

A measure of hypothetical merit must be considered of equal weight as achieved merit, otherwise we put at risk the equality of opportunity we claim to uphold. Minorities have decreased access to quality healthcare, housing, and extracurricular programs. Minorities are also more likely to face financial burdens and lack connections to those who could present them with internships or hands-on experience. Consider two students: a white student named Katherine and a black student named Alice. Katherine is a middle-class student who attends a private school in the suburbs.

Her parents both work full-time, but they have flexible enough work schedules to drive her to and from school, soccer practice, and Girl Scouts. They prioritize her education and can luckily afford to pay for weekly SAT prep classes and private tutors to help her academically.

Meanwhile, Alice attends a public school in the inner city. She works two jobs part time to support her family, which is struggling to make ends meet. She used to be in cheer but was forced to quit due to the cost of uniforms and travel expenses to games. After walking home from the bus stop every day, she does her chores then cooks dinner for her two younger brothers.

Her parents do not get home until around nine at night, so she helps them with their homework before completing her own. In this case, Katherine might work just as hard as Alice, but this work is not reflected in his academics. For this reason, it is significantly more difficult to achieve the same level of “measurable” success (resume, GPA, SAT, etc.) for a student who lacks the same level of resources. 

And considering in 2017 the median household income for whites in America was $68,145 versus $40,258 for blacks, it is unsurprising that minorities are underrepresented in higher education. If this disparity in opportunity is not considered, we can foresee a future in which college admissions become near exclusionary to the wealthy.

Indeed, such a situation has already begun as “just 3% of students at elite colleges in the country come from the poorest 25% of families, while 72% come from the richest 25%” according to the Atlantic.

Put bluntly, equality of opportunity does not currently exist, and therefore, neither does meritocracy. In this sense, affirmative action does not degrade meritocracy; it promotes it. 

Furthermore, historical repression based upon race, nationality, and gender could also have played a role in preventing people from succeeding as much as they would have otherwise. These groups were not simply “unlucky.” They were systematically prevented from social, political, and economic advancement through discriminatory policies, implicit bias, exploitation, and deprivation of rights. (Segregation, voter suppression, and redlining come to mind, all of which have ramifications which still affect society today.)

Does this mean that all non-minorities are responsible to atone for the actions of their ancestors against minorities? Of course not. But we must realize that these policies and social norms have limited the opportunity of these groups with lasting effects which remain to this day, so it would be moral to compensate them as they begin with a “worse hand.” The institution of charity allows for this compensation to occur, accounting for these privileges and taking a step closer to equality of opportunity. 

But Asians suffered through institutional discrimination too, from the Chinese Exclusion Act to Japanese internment camps. And yet affirmative action does not help them; in fact, it harms their chances of being admitted. Why is it that these minorities don’t receive the benefits of affirmative action? 

Because frankly they don’t need it as much. The median income for Asians is $81,331, which is even higher than whites, which is $65,273. Asians never suffered from systematic discrimination to the same extent as African Americans. This is not to say they did not experience it — they surely did — but they were able to overcome it in a way which was not possible for other minorities with more severe historical hurdles. 

As transitory institutions which serve the youth in some of their most formative years, universities which use affirmative action seek to improve society. As such, in 2003, all eight Ivy League Universities collaborated to express support for affirmative action, stating “Highly selective universities have long defined as one of their central missions the training of the nation’s business, government, academic, and professional leaders.

By creating a broadly diverse class, amici’s admissions policies help to assure that their graduates are well prepared to succeed in an increasingly complex and multi-racial society.” These colleges understand that they are not only academic institutions, but also social ones, and in acknowledgment of this social responsibility they utilize race-based affirmative action to address these systematic disparities.

So it’s not about righting historical wrongs as much as it is righting socioeconomic disadvantage. If the issue is privilege of wealth, then why not just perform affirmative action based on socioeconomic status? The only reason colleges use race instead of income for affirmative action is because they are too afraid of angering wealthy donors.

Why else would they simultaneously maintain the legacy system, in which people are unfairly judged by yet another factor out of their control to the benefit of the wealthy? In reality, the only function of the legacy system is to encourage donations. Race is just a cover in order to perform affirmative action of income by proxy. 

As a result, it is less effective than affirmative action by income in aiding economic inequality. If we are truly trying to make the education system more fair for people of all incomes, we ought to base systems of affirmative action off socioeconomic status instead of race. 

How are we to force them to use income instead of race in affirmative action if they have been unwilling to in the past? Although indirect, race based affirmative action rectifies the same issue: inequality of opportunity caused by economic disparity. The difference is that colleges will allow it. Shouldn’t we take what we can get rather than leave with no affirmative action policies in place at all? 

Affirmative action is in itself a racist policy as it assumes all minorities are in need of assistance. This reinforces stereotypes and perpetuates a culture wherein minorities are seen as lower class. 

Although the concern about the possible perpetuation of stereotypes is a legitimate one, it demonstrates a misunderstanding in the reasons why minorities are underrepresented in higher education. Affirmative action is not in place to compensate for some natural defect in a minority race; it simply acknowledges that minorities are less likely to have access to the same opportunity as non-minorities. 

We should not fight racism with more racism. Race-based affirmative action is nothing more than reverse-discrimination. A person is no less responsible for their privilege as another is for their poverty. Although it is unfortunate others are not given the same resources others might, why am I being used as a means to an end?

Because you can take it. In the bigger picture, you do not need a degree from a prestigious college as much as they do. Given your existing privileges and disadvantages, according to research from economists Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger, “Students from minority groups benefit more, in terms of lifetime earnings, from attending a selective college than their white peers.”

If this is about the sovereignty of the institution, then shouldn’t affirmative action only be performed in private colleges? After all, state colleges are publicly funded, so taxpayers should have some stake in their evaluation guidelines. 

People do not have the ability to mandate how other public institutions are run. Nobody has the power to directly tell the construction workers how to build a bridge, or the DMV how to perform their driving tests. That is what elected representatives are for — representing the people indirectly.  

But a university’s available spots are their own, so they may be distributed as it sees fit in order to best fulfill their mission. To cry discrimination by affirmative action is to argue entitlement to something to which you have no claim. Affirmative action seeks to extend a privilege to historically disenfranchised group, not revoke non-minorities’ right to a college education, because in reality, no such right exists. Unlike elementary and secondary schooling, which are legally required of minors, higher education is not a right, it is a privilege. In considering an applicant’s race, these colleges are not restricting the rights of non-minorities; they still have access to being reviewed and admitted. If the institution has sovereignty over its own mission and its own application process, there would be no reason why the applicant would play a role in dictating how they are to be evaluated. 

If it is in the college’s power to dictate its own evaluation guidelines, what is to stop it from discriminating against any group it so desires? Indeed, this occurred in the 1920s at Harvard University, where they set a quota on the number of Jewish people accepted, according to Business Insider

But nobody is asking for a quota. As long as the law aims to be inclusive, not exclusive, it is not discrimination. 

Isn’t it though? In an environment with limited numbers of spaces, it becomes a zero sum game. A boost towards one group is the equivalent of a penalty towards another. In fact, according to a Princeton study, affirmative action grants blacks and latinos the equivalent of 230 and 185 SAT points boosts to their SAT score compared to whites, while Asians experienced a loss of comparable to 50 SAT points. 

There are some 5,300 colleges and universities in the US alone. Only a fraction of those schools use race-based affirmative action in their admissions process, and it is fully their right to do so. In submitting your application, you are consenting to the guidelines of the college, and if you disagree with those guidelines, you are free to apply to the thousands of other universities at your disposal. 

Perhaps one does not have a right to be admitted to this college, but I do have a right to be evaluated in the same way. In some way or measure, this college — no matter how sovereign it may be — is violating my personal dignity. 

Perhaps I do consent to their application guidelines, but it is a coerced consent. Nearly all elite universities use race-based affirmative action, so if I want to attend a prestigious college, I have no choice other than to agree to their guidelines — including race-based affirmative action. 

Race affects how we are treated in society, which in turn shape our character through experience. As a result, a person’s race will immeasurably change their world view, allowing them to contribute something different than another applicant who may have lived in the same area with roughly the same socioeconomic standing. 

Schools are still far from desegregated, as 81.6% of white students attended schools where at least half of students were also white and 44.1% of black students attended schools where at least half of their students were also black in 2015. Seeing as diversity is not widespread in elementary and secondary schools, it is even more important that we encourage diversity in order to expose students to people with other backgrounds. By facilitating interaction with new people who are different from themselves, affirmative action presents all students, regardless of race, with the opportunity to gain a better understanding of new and unfamiliar points of view.

This can give students a better sense of self-awareness and create opportunity for introspection, making them more capable of informed decisions about their academic and professional future. This ability to think differently also improves problem solving skills, as studies have concluded that diversity causes people to think more objectively and process facts more carefully. Students of different backgrounds can challenge each other to think about politics and ethics from new perspectives, sparking discussion and civic engagement through critical thinking. In fact, according to a Stanford study, “when we hear dissent from someone who is different from us, it provokes more thought than when it comes from someone who looks like us.” 

Seeing as by 2050 there will be no racial or ethnic majority in our country, the American workforce is predicted to only grow more diverse in the coming decades. As such, the ability to relate to people from different cultural backgrounds and fight unconscious bias will become even more valuable for future jobs.

Ethnic diversity does not necessarily guarantee intellectual diversity. In fact, according to Harvard Business Review, “having run the execution exercise around the world more than 100 times over the last 12 years, we have found no correlation between this type of [cognitive] diversity and performance.”  In assuming that people of different races will have different opinions, you implicitly assume that people of the same race have similar opinions, which is an extreme generalization. 

Admittedly, affirmative action takes a broad-stroke approach. After all, not every individual in a minority group may have been impacted by discrimination in the same way, nor will they each have the same viewpoint as their peers. However, by in large, race-based affirmative action does achieve socioeconomic leveling and provide diversity of ideas which improve the college experience. Although there can indeed be diversity within racial groups, some aspects of our personal identity cannot be replicated. As an Asian woman, I could never fully understand what it would be like to be a black man. And presumably he would not be able to fully understand what it means to be me. The fact is that because we are of different races we are treated differently and thus have different experiences and perspectives in a way which cannot be replicated. 

But if diversity has all of these benefits, why aren’t historically black colleges performing affirmative action too? 

The difference is that these institutions were formed out of historical necessity given that these minorities would not be accepted into most existing colleges. This is not a reflection of exclusionary behavior, just a reflection of the discrimination which has led to us needing affirmative action in the first place.

Besides, nobody is clamoring to get into these colleges the same way they are these top schools. The severity of the demand is simply not there. These colleges are generally not as prestigious as those which use affirmative action, and as such, the discrimination which might be at play here is of relatively little importance. 

Simply put, affirmative action does not work. Oftentimes, these students are unprepared for such an incredibly competitive educational environment, causing them to struggle, whereas they might thrive at a different college. This is why, according to The Atlantic, “even though blacks are more likely to enter college than are whites with similar backgrounds, they will usually get much lower grades, rank toward the bottom of the class, and far more often drop out.”

Unfortunately, affirmative action simply hurts its supposed beneficiaries, as “blacks who start college interested in pursuing a doctorate and an academic career are twice as likely to be derailed from this path if they attend a school where they are mismatched.” Instead of uplifting the needy and improving diversity, this “mismatch” effect instead makes it even harder for minorities to succeed than if they were simply to attend a less prestigious college.  

This “mismatch” effect is misguided and unfounded. In fact, a 2007 study of students whose SAT scores were lower than the average SAT score of other students at their college found those students were not less likely to drop out, although in some cases they earned lower grades. Furthermore, a study at the University of California found that “students who had just made the admissions cutoff — those most likely to be mismatched — earned slightly lower grades than other students, but the difference disappeared when they were compared only to students with a similar educational background.”

According to a 2015 Vox story, Libby Nelson argues “If anything, it’s the opposite — students benefit from going to the best college that will admit them, even if their academic credentials are a stretch, because more selective colleges tend to have higher graduation rates.”

Affirmative action has proven successful in increasing the number of minorities with advanced degrees, thus providing them with unseen economic opportunities. Although African Americans are still indeed underrepresented, affirmative action has aided minorities in increasing acceptance rates into selective universities. In fact, affirmative action programs have resulted in doubling or tripling the number of minority applications to colleges or universities, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The opportunity this poses is enormous given the value of such a prestigious diploma since “the median annual earnings for an Ivy League graduate 10 years after starting amount to well over $70,000 a year…[while] for graduates of all other schools, the median is around $34,000.” By providing minorities with the opportunity to learn at a selective institution, universities present them with new job credentials and thus open new opportunities in the workforce. This will hopefully  promote grassroots equality of opportunity through socioeconomic leveling, allowing the achievement gap to close, thus creating a long-term solution to this systematic problem.

In suggesting that minorities are in need of external assistance, we are simply perpetuating racism by implying they are in some way inferior. It is demeaning and patronizing, a total betrayal of the values we are ostensibly trying to further. In admitting those who are frankly not as a qualified, we degrade the integrity of the college degree. Won’t minorities who are admitted doubt their own self worth? Won’t employers attribute their degree to their race, not their skills?

All those who are admitted are highly qualified, regardless of race. Perhaps some employers might attribute their admission to affirmative action, but the degree itself will far outshine it. 

Though affirmative action may increase the number of minority students at prestigious colleges, it fails to give students the means to develop the skills for success once they are admitted. To do so would involve aiding inequality which begins much earlier in the education system.

This is because, according to the United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, “Elementary and secondary schools with large numbers of black and Hispanic students are less likely to have experienced teachers, advanced courses, high-quality instructional materials and adequate facilities.” If we truly want to uplift minorities, we need to create grassroots development in areas of need through educational reforms earlier in the system. 

Who said affirmative action had to be the end all be all? Affirmative action could be just one part of broader educational reforms. Disadvantaged children should be supplied with the means to excel academically and extracurricularly on their own as much as possible. Meanwhile, in acknowledgement that educational reforms have their limits, especially with regards to financial burdens and home life, affirmative action should be used to give minority students equal access to college admissions.

In light of recent political discourse and cultural whiplash, we should not exacerbate existing anger between races. Already, most whites feel that they experience greater discrimination than blacks in the US. By using this — let’s be frank — reverse racism in applications, we will only make non-minorities resentful towards minorities. In this way, action only contributes to racial tensions. 

There is no denying that race-based affirmative action is controversial. But its long term benefits far outweigh the short term division it may cause. The root cause of the issue here is race. We are not only combating historical discrimination, but current discrimination. For example, college-educated black men earn only about 80% of the hourly wages of college-educated white men.

That is, if a minority can even gain an equally good position. Hiring discrimination still remains, as a recent study at at Northwestern University, Harvard, and the Institute for Social Research in Norway found that “white applicants receive 36% more callbacks than equally qualified African Americans.” These factors further contribute to existing income inequality in black households, which therefore adversely affects a child’s academic performance. 

Moreover, there also appears to be an “achievement gap” which persists between races even after accounting for socioeconomic status.

According to a Stanford study, “the racial achievement gaps are very large, even among students of different race/ethnicities who attend schools with similar socioeconomic conditions… On average white students score one and half or more grade levels higher than black and Hispanic students enrolled in socioeconomically similar school districts.”

Race is the root cause of this academic disparity, not socioeconomic status. To address solely socioeconomic status instead of race in affirmative action would be short sighted, as any society built upon flawed foundation is bound to see inequality arise once again along racial lines. It is for this reason that race-based affirmative action is essential to preserve meritocracy.

To what end? Where do you stop? Are we to change which group is seen as disadvantaged? Are we to compensate for non-minorities once they catch up? Will the pendulum swing back and forth?

Perhaps so. It will up to the colleges to decide. Though unlikely given its controversy, some might continue it the same way some colleges attempt to maintain a gender balance regardless of the relative proportions of applicants. 

Others will stop, seeing the need for affirmative action is relieved considering most historical discrimination has been directed towards minorities. Affirmative action would merely be a temporary measure to right the effects of that historical discrimination, nothing less. 

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