Affirmative action is a policy in which race is taken into consideration as a factor in applications for universities or jobs. It was first introduced in 1965 when Lyndon B. Johnson passed an executive order preventing discrimination in employment to provide African American students who had been discriminated against during the Jim Crow era with educational opportunities they otherwise might not have had access to.
Affirmative action soon garnered controversy, leading to the Supreme Court ruling in Regent of the University of California v. Bakke (1978) that banned the use of racial quotas in the college admissions process. Today, many universities consider race when deciding who to admit, but as one factor in the holistic review of each applicant, rather than directly creating a target number of students of each race to admit.
Now, affirmative action practices are once again in the spotlight because of two court cases: Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) v. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and SFFA v. Harvard University. The SFFA has escalated both of these cases to the Supreme Court, on the basis that the consideration of race in college admissions is illegal. They claim that it violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by ranking Asian Americans lower on subjective factors such as likeability, courage, and kindness.
Proponents of affirmative action argue that it is essential to provide disadvantaged students with a boost in the college admissions process and emphasize the importance of diversity on college campuses. Others denounce the policy as a modern form of racial discrimination.
A college application cannot be complete without contextualizing one’s achievements within the opportunities provided to them and the adversity they faced. However, it is also important to provide everyone with an equal opportunity to higher education, and that necessarily means removing racial discrimination from the admissions process. Using affirmative action that takes into account socio-economic class rather than race effectively achieves this balance.
To immediately correlate wealth to racial status fails to take into account that there are people of every race living in adverse conditions, just as there are people of every race who have all the resources they need to succeed. Viewing this issue through the lens of race excludes some people living in difficult situations from the advantage they rightfully deserve in college admissions while providing some wealthy students with even more advantages than they already have because of their race.
As economist and political commentator Thomas Sowell observes, affirmative action doesn’t always favor those in difficult circumstances, but instead usually helps middle and upper-class Black and Latino students get into elite universities. As it currently stands, universities are not aiding the most disadvantaged students through affirmative action.
With wealth-based affirmative action, more disadvantaged individuals from minority groups would be given the boost they deserve in the college admissions process, especially because income inequality remains persistent between races, with Black and Latino households earning, on average, half as much as their White counterparts. This new policy would, therefore, better create social mobility for minorities by taking into account racial disparities in wealth and opportunity. However, it would achieve this goal in a fair way that doesn’t disadvantage anyone solely on the basis of race, while still helping those in minority groups whose families have been impacted by the historical injustices that have led to today’s racial wealth gap.
While contextualizing applications is a part of the reason elite universities take into account race, their main justification for this policy is to create diversity on campus. Diversity is a vital part of the modern college experience. Students go to college not only to learn content that could help them later in life but also to build connections and meet new people, especially those who are different from them.
However, using race as a benchmark for this variation in the student body merely promotes the diversity of a superficial trait that does not necessarily indicate anything by itself. For instance, White and Asian applicants are typically the most disadvantaged by affirmative action. A White applicant who is a refugee from the Ukrainian war would provide a unique perspective on campus. An Asian American who grew up in Compton, California would likely have a very different worldview than someone of the same race living in Wellesley, on the other side of the country.
The amount of melanin in someone’s skin demonstrates little about someone compared to the adversity they have faced. Throughout history, America has altered racial labels to conveniently push certain ethnicities, such as brown and Asian people, out of the White ingroup. Race serves as a vague social construct that has historically been used oppressively. It is not a defining trait that should play a role in providing opportunities for certain individuals at the expense of others, and educational institutions should certainly not be perpetuating this mentality.
Meanwhile, it is easy to define low-income students. They will provide new perspectives on campus and carry the grit that allowed them to succeed in high school to college. If someone faces poverty at home but manages to perform just as well as their wealthier counterparts, then their application deserves an extra boost; they were able to create the same results with fewer resources. This is especially true with standardized test scores, where expensive tutors have turned these assessments from intelligence tests into indicators of wealth. Those who may at first glance seem like average students could be demonstrating superior academic prowess in a tough environment. And those individuals could be of any race.
Admissions officers assuming that individuals of certain races are facing more adverse circumstances than others is racist. Admissions officers assuming that Asian Americans do not have vibrant personalities is racist. Admissions officers taking into account factors that have a concrete impact on applicants, such as their socio-economic status, is not. Although racial affirmative action was once a way to lift victims of Jim Crow laws out of poverty, it has turned into an oppressive force that perpetuates the racism it was designed to stop.