Abel McDaniels | A Hollow Prize?: Rethinking Affirmative Action
Willing and Abel | Structural inequality has changed since the 1960s — why haven’t our policies?
March 20, 2014, 7:54 pm · Updated March 21, 2014, 1:13 am·
T h is time last year, Penn (along with the rest of the higher education community) was anxiously awaiting the decision of a Supre me Court case that had the potential to seriously alter current admissions practices: Fischer v. University of Texas .
At the time, there seemed to be a lot at stake in the pending decision. Opponents of race-conscious affirmative action thought that the practice would finally and rightfully be put to an end. Proponents worried that if this were to happen, the campuses of selective colleges and universities would become significantly less diverse, as would the ranks of those who occupy spaces of leadership and power as the result of their elite education.
The Court’s ruling left race-conscious practices untouched, and the world remained intact. But last fall, the Supreme Court accepted a new, more obscure challenge to affirmative action: The justices agreed to decide whether or not state voters could ban race-conscious affirmative action via the referendum process.
Now, I’ve come to see that race-based affirmative action is not the panacea most proponents seem to think it is. Dogmatically clinging to such policies not only obscures our understanding of how they actually work, but also ignores the pressing need to reevaluate and update them. The mechanisms that produce structural inequality today are different from those of 50 years ago, and our efforts to address them need to reflect this evolution.
Born in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, race-conscious policies were said to uphold equality of opportunity, prevent discrimination, redress disadvantages associated with historical discrimination and help to insure that public institutions accurately reflected the diversity of the communities they serve.
As President Lyndon Johnson said in 1965, “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring up to the starting line of a race and then say you are free to compete with all the others.”
Race-conscious affirmative action in education and employment has always been controversial, and over the past 50 years its definition and utilization have been more carefully defined and restricted. In the late 1970s, explicit quota systems were deemed unconstitutional, and in 2003, point systems were as well.
Currently the consideration of race is constitutional so long as it allows institutions to enroll a “critical mass” of underrepresented students if they consider doing so an institutional priority; the Fischer case reaffirmed this decision.
Most arguments against race-conscious affirmative action do not really hold water. Compared to underrepresented minorities, students who benefit from athletic and legacy affirmative action programs are more likely to leave school and have lower grades.
Race-conscious affirmative action beneficiaries at selective institutions are more likely to graduate from college than are their peers at less selective institutions. There are also not enough underrepresented minority students admitted under such programs so that significant numbers of seats are actually “taken away” from white and Asian applicants.
But race-conscious affirmative policies today have become too dislodged from the provision of opportunity to those who truly lack access. Affirmative action played a great role in the expansion of a black middle class, but today it’s most beneficial to those in a position to take advantage — students who come from more affluent families.
Numerous article s have shown that large numbers of students enrolled in selective institutions that identify as black are not African-American (who affirmative action was designed for) but Caribbean or African, who statistically are more educated and affluent than the average American.
Discussions about diversity have become disconnected from those of opportunity and inequality. Diversity rightfully seeks to celebrate differences, and over the past half-century, numerous categories of difference have come to be celebrated: race, gender, geographic location, sexual orientation and socioeconomic status.
Under our current conception of diversity, looming and growing disparities are not a problem as long as those at the top come in all the right shades and hues. As it stands now, affirmative action abets in the reproduction of such inequalities.
Abel McDaniels is a College sophomore from Lawrenceville, N.J. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.