Thursday, February 23, 2012

How My View on Affirmative Action in Higher Ed Has Evolved


This week, the Supreme Court announced that it will hear the Fisher v. Texas case, a case about affirmative action in higher education. Abigail Fisher, a white woman, alleges that the Texas public university school system discriminated against her because of her race when she was denied admission. 

Currently, under the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger case, institutions of higher education are not allowed to use race as a point-based factor in direct admission decisions, but they can use race as one of the contributing factors in choosing applicants to ensure diversity.

Reading about this made me reflect on my own feelings about affirmative action in higher education which have been complicated.

First of all, I work for a program that uses race-based selection (which I've written about before). The program I work for (which I love, and whole-heartedly believe in) helps students who are first-generation college students (so neither parent has a degree) and who meet certain income guidelines. It also takes a smaller percentage of students who are from racial groups underrepresented in higher education. Often, these populations overlap, but we do have some students in our program who meet the underrepresented requirement but not the first-generation one.

Since most of our students are first-generation, low-income students, our work focuses primarily on serving this population. We aim to make up for the cultural gap in knowledge about the inner workings of college systems and how to succeed. Having been a first-generation, low-income college student myself, I empathize with these difficulties. I was always a successful student, but learning how to navigate the collegiate landscape was difficult. I had no one to talk to about admissions decisions, scholarships, or career paths. My family supported me in the goal of getting into college, but no one had any idea what to do after I met that goal.

Some have suggested that an economic-based affirmative action (privileging first-generation, low-income applicants) would still help racially underrepresented applicants without having to use race-based selection. At one point, I thought this was a good idea. But I've changed my mind.

These letters from New York Times readers over such a suggestion point to some of the benefits and problems with using economic-based selection criteria rather than race-based ones. Here are some of the problems:

Economic disadvantage and race may overlap, but they are not the same. Substituting economic-based criteria may ignore the fundamental, equality-based reasoning behind affirmative action.
"Poverty is not a proxy for race, and to pretend that it is ignores the initial foundation for affirmative action: to correct for demonstrable biases against minorities in attaining higher education. Colleges and universities should be engines of social change, equalizing students (as much as possible) across old lines of race, class and gender."-Brian Farkas  
 Race-based affirmative action aims to address racial inequality, and racial inequality (regardless of socioeconomic status) persists. 

"The recurring debate over race-based affirmative action often avoids the central question: Has structural racism in society diminished to such an extent that social engineering mechanisms like affirmative action are no longer necessary?
Unfortunately it has not, and there is ample data to support this conclusion. Recent studies confirm that unconscious racism continues to be infused in nearly every aspect of society. Every student of color, whether inner-city or suburban, well off or poor, continues to face this burden."-Victor Goode
My reason for believing that economic-based selection criteria doesn't fill the same role is connected to those two reasons, and it came to me not through reading and reflection, but through real-life illustration. 

A few years ago, some horribly racist incidents took hold of the campus where I work. There were lynch threats made, racial epithets were casually thrown about, and the atmosphere became increasingly tense. Some of the more formal efforts to ease concerns seemed to backfire; instead of demonstrating an overall space of tolerance and acceptance--one that would have relegated those incidents to the status of isolated and unwelcome--much of the community at large came across as well meaning but out-of-touch. 

Working in the role that I do, I was in close contact with many students of color who felt personally attacked and even unsafe. Some considered transferring. Some were angry and wanted to find a better course of action for the university as a whole. 

I know that this was only a small part of the overall process that eventually worked toward rectifying those wrongs--a process that can be attributed almost entirely to the dedicated and equality-minded members of the student body who took it upon themselves to make their voices heard and change the campus culture--but I think that my program helped those students. This program gave students a space where they did not have to feel out of place. Though the program is made up of students from multiple racial backgrounds (including white students), it is overwhelmingly a place of inclusion and acceptance, a space where individual effort is bolstered by community support. 

Economic disparity had nothing (at least directly) to do with those incidents. Those incidents grew out of racial intolerance. I agree with Farkas' comment above. Universities should be "engines of social change," and creating an atmosphere where intolerance is tackled and dismantled is a core component of that change. Students from many different backgrounds face a myriad of obstacles in attaining equal opportunities. Yes, economic-based initiatives address some of those concerns for some of those students, but race-based obstacles require race-based solutions. 

I dream of a day when race-based affirmative action will truly be unnecessary because that day can only come when racial equality is a reality.     


  1. I guess my problem with affirmative action is how it's fair to someone it's affirmative against. If two students have the same test scores and the same GPA should the tipping point be race? Either student can strive to improve their scores or their grades or their extracurricular activities but can they ever change their race? Either direction seems wrong. I would argue the only way it's fair is to not ask. The current system is broken because the federal government requires schools to ask race and gender etc. Wouldn't we be better off not knowing? If we didn't have that information could we be using it to make decisions?

    I know that's all a pipe dream but isn't forced equality a pipe dream too? Those that want to move up badly enough will always find a way, that's what makes America great. Self Made men make America great. I would be curious how many of those self made men made it there because of affirmative action. I'm betting not alot. I'd be willing to bet the most successful minority self made men made it with no governmental help making sure they got theirs.

    1. "Wouldn't we be better off not knowing? If we didn't have that information could we be using it to make decisions?"

      I understand this impulse, but I just don't see how it could ever happen. Let's say we have two students who both have 3.7 GPAs and 26 on their ACTs. We have both applications in front of us, and the application doesn't ask race or gender. Now, one of those students comes from an urban inner-city school and one of those students comes from an affluent suburban school. Assumptions are going to be made about the race of those students without ever having to look at a box that says the race. What if one of those students is named James and one of those students is named Tyrell. More assumptions are going to be made about the race of those students. A study submitted identical applications to job postings with the only difference being some of those applications used the most popular names for white people and some used the most popular names for black people. The "black" names got 50% fewer call backs. (

      Now, as to gender, it's not marked on the application, but it's probably going to be apparent in the name. Even if we take the name off, if one of those students lists extracurricular activities of football and basketball and one of those students marks cheerleading and softball, assumptions (right or wrong) are going to be made about that student's gender, and those assumptions will factor into the decision (be it consciously or subconsciously).

    2. Secondly, diversity helps all people. People who come from different backgrounds (and this is not just limited to race and gender) bring different perspectives. This sharpens problem solving, creative thinking, and overall quality of the student body. Part of the problem is that our definitions of what makes someone "the best" are already privileging majority viewpoints because most of the people who determined those categories shared the majority position. Studies have found race and gender bias in the ACT and SAT, for instance.

      When many of the people who write the tests are in majority positions, the questions favor majority test-takers, even if those majority test takers have equivalent intelligence and critical thinking skill. All that to say that your point that "[e]ither student can strive to improve their scores or their grades or their extracurricular activities" doesn't take into account that it's often harder for a minority student to improve those things than a majority student because the cultural lens is already tilted in favor of the majority.

      As Americans, we grow up surrounded by a narrative of equality and the American Dream mythos that we can all pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Naturally, we tend to bristle when we hear about affirmative action because it seems to go against those very tenets of equality that we've heard so often and stressed so much. And you're right, affirmative action does point to inequality, but I think that you're identifying the inequality in the wrong place. The inequality isn't contained within affirmative action; the inequality is within our culture, and affirmative action is attempting--with mixed degrees of success--to address it.

      Affirmative action only works as a patch. It just buys some time for people to work on other ways to make our cultural systems more diverse and less biased. I don't operate under any assumptions that getting to a position of equality will be easy or fast or that--if we ever do--we won't have to work to maintain that. I also know that hierarchies are important to the way we make sense of the world, and that means that--more than likely--even when one group of people is no longer discriminated against, another group will take their place. The work of striving for equality is constant, but it is important work.

  2. Without a race or gender box, assumptions might have to be made, however that assumes anyone wants to make those assumptions. The driving force behind affirmative action is the ratios and data that schools have to report due to department of education guidelines. If you get rid of those guidelines then there's no reason to bother making those assumptions unless you assume that every admissions officer is racist. As long as affirmative action is working we're forcing racism to continue. I guess we can try to call it Positive Racism.
    At what point will the work be done? What ratio is acceptable?

    Also to touch on your ACT or SAT point, if there exists a true bias against minorities then that's something that needs to be addressed but it needs to be addressed in the test writing not in weighting scores after the fact.

    1. I agree that the bias in the test needs to be addressed at the level of the test-writing. I don't think that weighing the scores after the fact is a good solution, but the bias does demonstrate that "equally-qualified" candidates aren't as easy to identify as they may first seem.

      Also, if no one is making assumptions about gender or race without a box checked, how do you explain the study that found such a disparity between the job call-backs for identical applicants whose only difference was the name?

      I agree that affirmative action should not be a solution forever and that there does need to be a point where we say that we've gotten to acceptable levels of equality. I don't know what that exact ratio is, but I know that we're not there now.