Affirmative action in the academic world means considering traditionally underrepresented characteristics (race, sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.) in the admission process, in an attempt to reverse historical disparities.
This controversial topic will return to national attention when the Supreme Court begins to hear the case of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (UT). The case is rather simple. Abigail Noel Fisher claims she was not admitted to UT because affirmative action policies exclude white applicants. In most court cases regarding affirmative action, Fisher v. UT included, race is the admission factor being challenged.
Affirmative action in higher education is not only beneficial for students of color, it is essential in creating diverse and representative learning institutions. Affirmative action programs aim to reverse centuries of discrimination in education by providing opportunities to the traditionally disadvantaged.
Racism is still a potent force in American society; it may not be as violent or overt as it was 50 years ago, but to argue that racism doesn’t exist would be ignorant and dangerous. A student of color faces a myriad of issues along the way to college applications: a historical lack of positive role models; fewer AP/Honors courses offered in high school; and a historical under-representation in all aspects of society. These factors make attaining higher education much more difficult for students of color compared to white students.
Opponents of affirmative action will argue that such programs are based on reverse-racism. The phrase “reverse-racism” is an oxymoron and is used to justify the status quo. Racism is a system of inequalities designed to limit resources to specific racial groups. In order to claim being a victim of any form of racism, you must be a part of the disadvantaged group. I’m sorry fellow white people, but you can’t be a victim of any form of racism. You just can’t.
There may also be arguments suggesting that affirmative action lessens the prestige of any organization involved by admitting lesser qualified applicants. That is a misconception because affirmative action programs generally focus on merit-based admission. That means that the applicants of color being admitted are just as qualified as other applicants who are not students of color.
I’m sure we’ve all shared the experience of being rejected from some university. I remember hearing many of my white peers complain that affirmative action cost them their spot at many prestigious California institutions.
Not only is this untrue, but it demonstrates the sense of entitlement that only my white peers could develop. Those peers conveniently forgot about Proposition 209. Passed in 1996, the California Civil Rights Initiative prohibited affirmative action in state activities, making it illegal for UC and CSU systems to use race as a factor in admissions. I’m sure my peers were at least partially aware of this, but they chose to ignore it.
Blaming affirmative action is the easy cop-out for dealing with our own failures. If we look past our own insecurities and look at affirmative action for what it is – a system to promote diversity and equality – then it is our duty as human beings to accept and promote it.
In the case of Fisher v. The University of Texas, Abigail Fisher is suing the University of Texas on the grounds that their affirmative action-based admissions process is unconstitutional. Fisher was rejected from The University of Texas and in her court filing, claims that the reason she was rejected was because she was white.
The university’s current admissions policy automatically admits the top ten percent from each Texas high school, and then gives preferential treatment and special consideration to minority candidates. Affirmative action, both at the University of Texas and in general, is rooted in a problematic understanding of race, and is ineffective.
The issues with affirmative action are two-fold. First, affirmative action focuses on race with a single-mindedness; it is rooted in the mentality that all minority students attend under-funded inner-city high schools and are forced to work part-time jobs to help out with their families, which means they are often too busy to study or too tired to do well in class, whereas white students face none of these disadvantages.
In reality, this isn’t always true, but because of the way affirmative action operates on the basis of race it has to make this assumption.
The University of Texas at Austin’s admissions department assumed that because Abigail Fisher was white, she had an easier time in high school than any minority student. What about upper or middle-class minority students? If a minority student went to the same high school, was in the same economic class and had the exact same opportunities as Abigail Fisher, why should that student get an advantage over Ms. Fisher?
Or consider the opposite, a white student from a working-class family, who had to struggle through a bad public school. By the University of Texas’ policy, that student would have less opportunity to get into college than either his minority peers or a middle-class minority student, which is unfair.
If the aim of affirmative action is to level the playing field and help students who don’t have a lot of opportunities, then clearly affirmative action doesn’t always work. Affirmative action operates under an understanding of race and class straight from the 1960’s. Instead, universities should look for new admissions standards that recognize the way that the relationship between race and class has evolved.
Furthermore, affirmative action doesn’t do enough to actually bring about real change; it’s nothing more than a case of treating the symptom, but ignoring the disease. Proponents of affirmative action point to the low grades and test scores of inner-city schools as reasons to adopt affirmative action-based policies. If this is true, why don’t we stop trying to make it easier for students from bad schools to get into college, and instead focus on reforming K-12 education and increasing funding for all public schools?
If every group lobbying for affirmative action would instead focus on reforming under-performing public high schools, then perhaps we wouldn’t need affirmative action at all. Affirmative action means well, but in the end does nothing to help the disadvantaged and serves as a distraction from the real educational reform that could level the playing field.