To preface, I understand that there are always outliers and exceptions to every situation, and while I may speak in broad terms, I recognize that most people don’t think about this issue as black or white but in various shades of gray.
But I freaking love affirmative action.
The term “affirmative action” was first coined by John F. Kennedy in 1961. Kennedy urged government contractors to take “affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.”
Over the years, however, affirmative action has received a lot of attention in the context of college education. American universities were encouraged first to hire minority employees and then to admit racially diverse students, to create a more heterogeneous class.
The bottom line is that in order to ascend in the national rankings, colleges began to seek out minority students and often would admit those who were lower achieving than their Caucasian counterparts.
Naturally, the white applicants whose spots were taken by less proficient students because of their ethnicity began to feel discriminated against. This eventually escalated to the Supreme Court, with Regents of the University of California v. Bakke in 1978, Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003, Gratz v. Bollinger in 2003, and finally Fisher v. Texas in 2008. Each of these cases challenged the constitutionality of university affirmative action policies, claiming essentially that universities cannot constitutionally use race as a factor in admissions.
This sort of fragments the debate on affirmative action because three very different questions emerge. Is it constitutional? Does it work? Is it fair?
Is it constitutional?
Legally, as of now, affirmative action is deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court.
By and large, since 1978 and the Bakke case, the Supreme Court has held that universities have a compelling interest in considering race as a factor in admissions, provided that their policies are narrowly tailored and are applied in the least intrusive means possible.
That doesn’t mean that the universities have always won, because they haven’t, but it does mean that affirmative action, in principle, is constitutional as long as universities go about it in a certain way. And they do.
So does it work?
That depends. Do more minority students get to go to college than would without affirmative action? Absolutely.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, when California abolished affirmative action programs in 1998, minority student admissions fell by 36 percent at UCLA and a whopping 61 percent at UC Berkeley. The same happened in Texas in 1996: Rice University’s freshman class had 46 percent fewer African-Americans and 22 percent fewer Hispanic students.
So hands down, more minority students get to attend universities under affirmative action. There’s a wider debate about whether that education actually leads to a successful life, but by and large the consensus is that affirmative action does provide minority individuals with better educations and ultimately higher-paying jobs.
So that part of the argument is essentially factual and relatively untainted by my opinion. That’s not the case with my next point.
Is it fair?
This becomes a lot more subjective, and here is the argument against affirmative action in terms of fairness: Many critics of affirmative action say it was created to secure fair admissions for minority students and to right the wrongs of racial discrimination. This, to them, is outdated, and has led to discrimination against Caucasian students, favoring minorities.
That’s stupid. One hundred and fifty years ago, it was legal — and constitutional, I might add — for me to own other human beings because they were black. Today’s black students, who affluent white kids resent for having advantages in the college admissions process, were legally equivalent to property a hundred and fifty years ago. How can we, as a nation, just shrug that off and say that everyone is equal?
After freeing the slaves, we then managed to “reconstruct” the South for all of 12 years before we pulled the National Guard from its job of enforcing equality and allowed the KKK to unleash a reign of terror that lasted officially until 1964, with remnants that are still visible today. Addressing discrimination is not an outdated policy.
Those who oppose affirmative action complain that minority students are wrongfully admitted to universities instead of white students with higher grades and test scores. They say the best students should get into universities, and white people are being discriminated against.
That’s also stupid. A white kid’s test scores and grades should not be compared to those of an African American or Hispanic. White students (and once again, I am speaking generally and I understand that this isn’t true for everyone) are generally wealthier. Wealth makes academic success far easier: wealthy students often have professional parents and they grow up in a more educated household; wealthy kids go to better schools; wealthy parents can afford tutoring and extracurricular activities.
So some think that socioeconomic status should be the basis for affirmative action, citing that middle- and upper-class minorities benefit more from affirmative action policies than lower-class minorities. But generally (I know this isn’t always true, but statistically and holistically it is true) lower-class students do worse in school, so it makes sense that lower-class minority students do not reap the benefits in college admission as much as wealthier minorities.
But even so, race cannot be ignored in college admission. Socioeconomic status cannot be the basis of affirmative action because minority students live entire lives of disadvantages, not just economic ones.
Minorities are discriminated against at every stage in lives: socially, economically, educationally, politically, and personally (and yes, maybe not in Kettering, Ohio, as much as Detroit).
Minorities lead a measurably harder life than whites. Undeniably. The entire system is out to get minorities from the moment they are born: in Washington, D.C., 75 percent of African American males will go to prison. If a black kid in D.C. gets a 29 on his ACT, I figure it’s worth just as much as the 36 that James Ellington IV gets in New Haven, Connecticut. Frankly, it is discriminatory to ignore the disadvantages that minority students face and to treat them as though they are on equal footing with white ones.
Personally, out of principle, I also think white people can suck it up. After, you know, enslaving and repressing non-whites for hundreds of years, we should probably be able to deal with a minor disadvantage in the college application process.
To conclude, I am not saying that the affirmative action system in place is perfect. A lot of privileged minorities reap benefits they may not need, and certain races receive more advantages than others. Today, Asian students have a harder time gaining admission than white ones. While those are problems need to be addressed, our society undoubtedly needs a system that levels the playing field of racial inequality.
So the question, is it fair?
Obviously nothing can be perfect, and affirmative action is no exception: it is going to have flaws. But the benefits vastly outweigh the negatives. Affirmative action counters racial discrimination and offers minority students opportunities that they never could have had without it.
So, yes, in the grand scheme of things, it’s fair.