The Failure of Our Affirmative Action System
In the United States, affirmative action is used to promote diversity in universities. Universities take race into consideration during their admissions process. But how exactly did we get here? What have people done about this? And should we even keep our current system?
In the course of American history, racial minorities have been discriminated against by society. Affirmative action was implemented in order to compensate for this historical discrimination and make society fairer. Many top universities today apply affirmative action through the consideration of race in the admissions process. However, this increases the unfairness already in our society, but can still be salvaged by improving affirmative action.
America has always emphasized equality, becoming especially noticeable in the Reconstruction Era, when people realized that former slaves would still be discriminated against by whites. However, attempts to help the recently freed slaves, like the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which made all freed slaves citizens, were met with strong opposition from Southerners and President Johnson. Later, as the civil rights movement developed, the US started taking more steps to move towards equality. In FDR’s New Deal programs, the clause "no discrimination shall be made on account of race, color or creed” appeared often. Truman desegregated the US armed forces. Executive Order 10925, issued by JFK, states that “The [government] contractor will not discriminate against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, creed, color, or national origin.” One of the largest steps forward was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made discrimination in public accomodations illegal. These all helped to give equal rights to all citizens, regardless of race. (Anderson 1-48) However, these changes did not give special preference to those minorities, so if they started out at the bottom, being treated equally meant they stayed at the bottom. Because universities were the gateway to improve one's social status, they were the ones who implemented affirmative action in their admissions process.
One of the first affirmative action systems was the quota system. Universities divided applicants into different pools depending on their race, and accepted the top students from each race, making sure the accepted students fell into certain percentages by race, as they believed that comparing applicants similar in race is fairer than comparing people of vastly different backgrounds. However, if there were not enough qualified applicants of a race to meet the quota, the standards would be lowered for them, setting them on a path for failure later in the university. Furthermore, this system discriminated against “model minorities”, which are minorities that still managed to find success in America, like Asian-Americans. This happened because they had consistently higher test scores when compared to other minorities, which made their applicant pools highly competitive, so qualified applicants would be turned away. People quickly realized the flaws in the quota system, and after the Regents of the Univ. of Cal. v. Bakke court case, the Supreme Court ruled that having a rigid racial quota system for universities violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. (oyez.org)
Another way affirmative action has been implemented was through a point system. A point system ranks applicants on a point scale, and they earn points based on their accomplishments. If an applicant’s point total is above a certain threshold, they are automatically accepted. Points were given to certain races. One university that used a point system was the University of Michigan. Michigan’s point system gave underrepresented minorities a 20 point bonus, whereas a perfect SAT score was only worth 12 points. (District Court) Is it really fair that being born a certain race already makes you better than the best students? The point system was challenged by Jennifer Gratz and Patrick Hamacher, in the court case Gratz v. Bollinger. They argued that it discriminated against certain racial groups, and it too was ruled unconstitutional for violating the Equal Protection Clause.
While some states have already banned affirmative action, including California, Michigan, Washington, and New Hampshire, (tcf.org) the majority of top universities in the United States have been using affirmative action in a more ambiguous way, or the so-called “holistic review”. However, the ongoing court case Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard forced Harvard to release their admission documents, which showed systematic lower personality scores for Asian Americans. (nytimes.com) This case highlights the recurring trend of discrimination against Asian Americans. Despite the fact that they have higher test scores on average and that they make up a significant amount of the applicant pool, their admission rates are one of the lowest. For example, when looking at acceptance rates to medical school from 2013 through 2016, the Asian rate is consistently lower than any other race, (AAMC) In the book No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal, Espenshade and Radford found that Asian-Americans with an SAT score of 1550 had about the same chance of getting in as an African American who scored 1100. (Unknown page) Another study done at Princeton found that African Americans get around a 230 point boost in SAT scores and Hispanics get around a 185 point boost while Asian-Americans get roughly a 50 point decrease. (“Admission Preferences”) Despite also being a minority that has a history of discrimination, our current affirmative action system only disadvantages Asian-Americans.
Current affirmative action does not even help the people at the bottom of society. It benefits the rich as they have access to more resources, like private tutoring, schools with dedicated teachers, and better funded schools, while poor families continue to be discriminated against. This just widens the gap between these two classes, and the situation will worsen over time. Another potential problem is race fraud, where someone identifies themselves as a minority despite not being one in order to get accepted. This revealed how the system is unfair and that people exploit it. One example of this was the story of Vijay Jojo Chokal-Ingam, who faked being African American to be accepted into med school. (almostblack.com)
Another consequence of affirmative action is that it could harm the supposed beneficiary. When an unqualified student is admitted, they may not be up to the standard expected of other students in that school, which would result in lower scores and grades, and increase the risk of dropping out. (Sander, Richard) In addition to that, students are more likely to form friendships among students of different races if they are of a similar academic level, so minority students would be better socially integrated if affirmative action was not in place. (Arcidiacono, Peter, et al.)
However, we cannot deny that there is still an issue with historical discrimination. So what could we still do about that? One possibility is to change affirmative action from focusing on race to focusing on socioeconomic class. This would help those who truly need it while stopping higher-class families from abusing the system. Minorities also make up a disproportionate amount of the lower class. For example, in 2016, the poverty rate for whites was 11%, whereas for blacks, it was 22%. (US Census 2016) Therefore, this would truly combat the systematic racism they had experienced throughout American history. Another possibility is to start helping these lower-class minorities earlier, which can include financial aid, better teachers in poor urban schools, and better outreach programs. As we continue to find new ways to create a fair society, we must stop using race-based affirmative action. In the words of Chief Justice John Roberts, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” (qtd. constitutioncenter.org)
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Arcidiacono, Peter, et al. “Representation versus Assimilation: How Do Preferences in College Admissions Affect Social Interactions?” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, The Royal Society, doi.org/10.1016/j.jpubeco.2010.10.003.
Chokal-Ingam, Vijay Jojo. “The True Story Of An Indian American Who Got Into Medical School Pretending To Be An African American.” Almost Black, almostblack.com/.
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Potter, Halley. “What Can We Learn from States That Ban Affirmative Action?” The Century Foundation, 18 Apr. 2016, tcf.org/content/commentary/what-can-we-learn-from-states-that-ban-affirmative-action/?agreed=1.
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Supreme Court. Regents of the University of California v. Allan Bakke.
“Table A-24: MCAT and GPA Grid for Applicants and Acceptees by Selected Race and Ethnicity, 2013-2014 through 2015-2016 (Aggregated).” Association of American Medical Colleges, www.aamc.org/data/facts/applicantmatriculant/157998/factstablea24.html.
United States District Court For The Eastern District Of Michigan. Jennifer Gratz and Patrick Hamacher v. Lee Bollinger, Et Al. 8 Apr. 1999.
VerBruggen, Robert. “Racial Preferences by the Numbers.” National Review, National Review, 16 June 2010, www.nationalreview.com/2009/11/racial-preferences-numbers-robert-verbruggen/.