The college admissions scandal that came to light last week, in which the privileged were found to have bought their way into the nation’s top universities, in some cases even by going to such extremes as falsifying students’ races and ethnicities, has opened yet another chapter in the seemingly endless debate on affirmative action. Is this current spate of wealthy students, who many believe took the spots of those who are more qualified (or at least more eager) to attend, going to face the same backlash that students of color receive daily for being recipients of affirmative action?
The answer to this question should be that these issues cannot even be compared. One is a group that has economic and skin color privilege, while the other is a group that has been historically disadvantaged in every aspect of life. The former should face harsh disapprobation, while the latter should be strongly supported, in order to help level the radically uneven playing field. However, instead of acknowledging that our higher education system is a business nurtured by capitalism — showing its overt favoritism for the wealthy by willingly accepting bribes — all too many are using this scam to bolster the denunciation of affirmative action, maintaining that in our “meritocratic society,” nobody, no matter the circumstance, deserves a “leg up.”
This outlook not only overlooks this country’s history of discrimination, particularly in education, but also fundamentally misinterprets the role and purpose of affirmative action in today’s racist society.
After hundreds of years of slavery, followed by segregation, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration, there is no doubt that today’s black population is inherently disadvantaged compared to its white counterparts. And in a country where the ancestors of most white students attended college long before the enslaved ancestors of most black students learned how to read, it is safe to say that education is one of the many ways in which this inequality is most prevalent.
Affirmative action, first mentioned in President Kennedy’s 1961 Executive Order #10925, was designed to help reverse this history of inequality and oppression of black people, as well as diversify classrooms and universities in order to create a more meaningful and valuable education for all. However, in the 1978 U.S. Supreme Court case, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, Justice Powell’s plurality opinion shifted the rationale for affirmative action away from ameliorating the adverse effects of past and current discrimination, placing greater emphasis on the educational value of diversity. The result of this shift is the flawed approach to affirmative action that we see in our universities today, where colleges don’t disaggregate their data on black students by ethnicity, nationality, and socioeconomic status, and thus aren’t conscious enough of which black students they admit.
A New York Times article looking into Harvard’s eight percent black population noted that only one third of those students are African-Americans — descendants of slaves — while the remaining two thirds are a combination of West Indian and African immigrants, children of those immigrants, and children of mixed-race couples. Similarly, the National Longitudinal Survey of Freshmen found that native black students are half as likely as second-generation African and Caribbean students to attend elite institutions. However, it is the former group that is the intended beneficiary of affirmative action, as it has experienced great adversity in the form of segregated housing, inadequate schools, poverty, and racism, due to generational trauma induced from the aftermath of slavery. In fact, in grim irony, it is this country’s slaves who were responsible for building the very universities that their descendants are not able to attend.
Incredibly, although the Longitudinal Survey suggests that the makeup of the black population at Harvard is comparable to that at Penn, Penn’s admissions office does not provide these statistics. In fact, Penn doesn’t even take ethnicity and nationality, let alone socioeconomic status, within the black population into account; it just provides the percentage of students that self-identify as “African American/black” — a mere seven percent. Former Dean of Admissions Lee Stetson even said that, although the University “takes note” of students’ backgrounds, it doesn’t “involve [itself] with exact roots.”
While Penn is undoubtedly patting itself on the back for not getting wrapped up in the current college admissions scandal, it still has a long way to go to ensure that its affirmative action policy benefits its students. The University needs to do more than just provide a checkbox that says black — it has to create a truly diverse student body by recruiting black students from all racial subgroups. Racial inequality isn’t just going to fix itself.
HADRIANA LOWENKRON is a College freshman studying Urban Studies and Journalism. Her email address is email@example.com.