Thoughts on Things On Which I Have Little Authority To Speak: Affirmative Action Edition

I bet you didn’t know you wanted to hear about Affirmative Action today! Well, you did, and I’ve got the perfect blog post.  A plethora of follow-ups, addenda, qualifications, nuances, exceptions, new thoughts, etc. are likely on their way.  

Affirmative action has well-intentioned and even effective underpinnings.  In practice, however, formalized affirmative action lends itself to rigid quotas and uses minority status as a proxy for all kinds of potentially unrelated characteristics.  It’s a huge disservice as it only furthers negative stereotyping, bitterness, and distance between majorities and minorities.

It makes sense to recognize that success and potential success don’t always translate into GPAs and SATs or degrees. That one must take into account the whole person — including background, race, gender, geography, income, family, etc. — when reviewing an application.  And, most importantly, it makes sense to promote and reward and empower people from historically underserved communities.

Because having a role model who looks like you, who talks like you, who comes from where you come from, who has banged up against the same glass ceiling as you did can make or break your own path to achievement.

But when all you are is a minority to a college admissions counselor or an employer, the totality of your experience is lost in the balck-and-white waves, and your success or failure becomes a metaphor for the success or failure of those you represent. U of Mich philosophy professor Carl Cohen:

Preferences…“do serious, long-lasting injury to the minorities concerned. Terrible damage,” said Cohen. “It raises questions about their competency for their whole lifetimes. It reinforces outrageous racial stereotypes.” If those admitted with lower academic qualifications turn out to do less well, “racists will say, ‘We told you so,’” he predicted.

Plus, racial, ethnic, or gender preference isn’t what affirmative action meant, as originally conceived:

 [A]ffirmative action programs are not something that any decent and reasonable person could object to—in the sense they were first conceived of in the early 1960s. When JFK and LBJ proposed affirmative action, they never imagined it would imply racial preferences. They saw it as forbidding preference by race. The act has been turned on its head.

In the 1960’s, the architects of affirmative action were tearing down a system of majority racial preference.  They didn’t imagine that in its wake, we’d build a system of explicit minority —  and not just racial minority — preference.

Mechanically filling quotas also makes diversity, real diversity, more of an afterthought than a byproduct of an earnest, wide-net search for candidates.  What you end up getting is quotas met perfectly by generally privileged applicants who happen to check the minority box.  Diversity In Name Only. The great, boring DINOsaurus.

As with any system that attempts shuttles complicated human beings between racial, ethnic, or gender boxes, some underserved populations go unrecognized.  Students of Asian descent, who often come from equally humble circumstances and meet admission standards in droves, are admitted far less often than other racial and ethnic minorities, and  less often than whites.

(Of course, I should note that “Asian” as a monolithic ethnic category makes even less sense as “WASP” or “White.”)

Affirmative action via formal race preferences also masks the great weakness in our early education system by plucking those that have made it to the finish line rather than making sure everyone has a fair start at the race.  Improving everyone’s beginning starts by recognizing that while the racial achievement gap is insidious, real and a weight on the shoulders of our nation, the income achievement gap is even wider.

It’s also worth noting that legacy admissions should be flushed down the tubes.  They’re terrible.  They’re pretty much the opposite of a meritocracy and do far more harm to income mobility than any good Affirmative Action (formal or informal) brings.

The bottom line is that whole breadth of an application should be relevant to an admission decision — including, but not limited to or by race, gender, ethnicity, geography, etc.   Says the white chick from Jersey.


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