“Cambridge Harvard Square” by Muns is licensed under CC by 2.0 Generic.
“Cambridge Harvard Square” by Muns is licensed under CC by 2.0 Generic.

WHY WE STILL NEED AFFIRMATIVE ACTION

Harvard University is known for many things, including its academic prestige, its use as the primary filming location of “Legally Blonde,” and its controversial affirmative action policy. 

As much as we’d love to discuss “Legally Blonde,” it’s a perfect movie that can speak for itself. Instead, we’ve decided to tackle something slightly more unpopular: that whole affirmative action thing.

Recently, a district court judge upheld Harvard’s use of race as a factor in admissions decisions by ruling that the university’s policy did not discriminate against Asian Americans. The case is likely to head to the Supreme Court, where it’s possible that affirmative action could be declared unconstitutional under the court’s conservative majority.

But affirmative action is still desperately needed in America’s best universities to combat the racial divisions that colorblindness does nothing to resolve. Here’s why.

AFFIRMATIVE ACTION AND SOCIAL MOBILITY

Affirmative action has existed in the United States since 1961, when President John F. Kennedy prescribed that federal contractors “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed … without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin” through Executive Order 10925. At a time when people of color were often unable to exercise their right to vote and legal segregation still existed, most would agree that it was necessary for employers to actively invest in greater diversity if the nation was intent on making progress toward racial equality. 

Today, more than 50 years after Kennedy’s initial endorsement of affirmative action in the workplace, the law prohibits much of the race-based discrimination that was common in the 1960s. While some would take this as a sign that affirmative action is no longer necessary, the truth is that institutional barriers to success still exist for American racial minorities. Shockingly, emancipating and legally desegregating a group of people does not erase the damage those practices had or the systems of oppression that still exist today. Nor does the election of a mixed-race president mean that we live in a post-racial era. While we have made significant progress on addressing America’s racist past, we still have much to do regarding the racism that our society continues to tacitly allow.

It should come as no surprise that whites* continue to have a higher median income than black and Hispanic Americans (we’ll get into why Asian Americans have a higher median income than even whites, as well as their role in the affirmative action debate, later). The average black American earns close to 41 percent less income than the average white, while the typical Hispanic earns 27 percent less income than their white counterparts. Meanwhile, the average white household has a net worth 13 times that of the average black household and 10 times that of the average Hispanic household, largely because whites inherit greater generational wealth. One research team estimated that the black-white wealth gap will take 225 years to bridge—and that’s an optimistic view.

Noting these statistics, some have proposed income-based affirmative action as an effective alternative to race-based affirmative action, presuming that the problems plaguing America’s minority communities are caused by class, not race. But while income inequality does exacerbate racial divisions in America, it cannot fully account for those divisions. Even controlled for income, racial minorities face challenges their white peers don’t have to deal with. 

For instance, middle-income white households possess twice as much wealth as Latinx households of the same income and three times as much as middle-class black households. Those wealth gaps in turn contribute to racial education disparities: America is one of the only countries in the world to fund public schools with local property taxes, meaning schools in underprivileged communities receive less money than those in wealthier areas. Schools where at least 90 percent of students are white spend a whole $733 more per pupil than schools where 90 percent or more of students are not white. 

Those funding disparities have significant consequences for learning opportunities. More than 70 percent of white students attend schools that offer a full range of math and science courses, while only two-thirds of Latino students, half of black students, and less than half of American Indian and Native Alaskan students have access to those courses. 

Students of color who are fortunate enough to attend properly funded schools are still less likely to access the same opportunities as their white peers. Even with nearly identical test scores, economic situations, and school environments, black and Hispanic students are less likely to be referred to gifted programs than white and Asian American students. 

Black, Hispanic, and Native American students also receive harsher school discipline than their fair-skinned classmates, even for the same offenses. This can be seen as early as pre-school: African-American boys make up 18 percent of enrolled children but 48 percent of students suspended more than once. Not only is the school system apt to punish students based on color, it’s also growing more likely for minority students to be ostracized by other classmates. In 2016, a quarter of students reported being bullied because of their race. 

It’s clear that, regardless of economic class, members of racial minorities face greater hurdles in education and in life than they would if they were white. If we want to make admission to elite universities more fair, it’s necessary that we take into account these additional struggles when evaluating a student’s achievements. And if we want to present those students with greater socioeconomic mobility, we need to expand their access to quality education.

Some well-intentioned people may argue that because of the academic challenges racial minorities tend to face, they may be less qualified than other students to attend elite universities and could struggle to meet the expectations of a rigorous curriculum. This is based in part on the debunked “mismatch” theory, which posits that these students would benefit more from attending less challenging schools more suited to their relative lack of educational attainment.

While the theory appears completely logical, research reveals few ideas could be further from the truth. Students who benefit from affirmative action at selective colleges, although perhaps lacking in some of the academic accolades their classmates possess, still must meet those colleges’ minimum standards for acceptance. Harvard isn’t admitting students with 1.6 GPAs just because they’re Hispanic. Affirmative action isn’t about unqualified individuals “stealing” acceptances from others with more merit; it’s about deciding which qualified individuals would benefit the most from a great education.

And minority students stand to gain quite a bit. Attending a highly selective college (the kind that would probably use affirmative action) produces larger increases in income and employment rates for blacks and Hispanics than for whites. Researchers have also concluded that students are more likely to graduate when they attend the most selective college that will accept them, meaning that a minority student can still succeed and graduate without having a prep-school background or a perfect SAT score.   

Granting more underprivileged students the opportunity to succeed through education not only could lift some individuals out of a vicious cycle of poverty, but might also lift entire minority groups by giving them more representation in elite institutions and positions of national leadership.

SCHOOL DIVERSITY AND INDIVIDUAL GROWTH

The benefits of affirmative action are not merely limited to the minorities who are accepted to highly selective colleges in greater numbers. Campus diversity has a positive effect on every student. 

One study found that students in the most diverse school environments “showed the greatest engagement in active thinking processes, growth in intellectual engagement and motivation, and growth in intellectual and academic skills,” which sounds like a list straight from any college’s mission statement. Another found that interactions with people of different races improve “students’ retention, overall satisfaction with college, intellectual self-concept, and social self-concept.” In other words, diversity as an effect of affirmative action can make a student’s college years more of what they are supposed to be⁠—periods of learning, creativity, and enjoyment. 

Additionally, diversity in schools ensures that students are prepared for the increasing diversity in the global workforce, allowing them to become more successful in their trade and collaboration with people of differing races and ethnicities. Research also suggests that diverse schools can reduce individuals’ racial prejudices, build their leadership skills, and even limit symptoms of anxiety. It’s evident that affirmative action is necessary, not just for the greater levels of socioeconomic mobility it gives to racial minorities, but also for the various ways in which it can improve students’ learning, happiness, and character.

ASIAN AMERICANS AND THE MODEL MINORITY MYTH

At the forefront of the battle against affirmative action is Edward Blum, founder of the vaguely named organization Students for Fair Admissions (SFA). In addition to gutting the Voting Rights Act, Blum orchestrated the controversial Texas v. Fisher case, in which white student Abigail Fisher argued that she was rejected from the University of Texas because of her race. After the failed case, Blum said that he “needed Asian plaintiffs” to challenge affirmative action once again.

Blum’s intentions haven’t changed since Texas v. Fisher. For him, ending affirmative action was never about protecting the interests of Asian Americans and other racial minorities—if it were, he might listen to the 65 percent of Asian Americans in support of racial considerations in college admissions. Instead, his attacks on affirmative action will have the effect of marginally improving admissions chances for whites, only to devastate the educational opportunities of underrepresented groups.

One analysis of data from state-wide affirmative action bans shows that the chances of underrepresented minorities gaining admission to highly selective public colleges decreased by 23 percent without accounting for race in the admissions process. 

Meanwhile, a 2016 study determined that even if all blacks and Hispanics were to be removed from Harvard’s admissions pool, the admissions chances of both Asian and white students would only rise by about one percent. If white and Asian Americans want to improve their prospects in education, fighting against school diversity and their fellow minorities isn’t the way to do it.

This isn’t the first time white Americans like Edward Blum have used Asian Americans as “racial mascots” to drive a wedge between people of color. After the United States horrifically relocated thousands of Japanese Americans to internment camps in the 1940s, the country embraced the image of Asians as a “model minority” as a sort of international P.R. stunt to repair America’s reputation overseas. As the image of the industrious Asian spread, Asian Americans became the first and only group to close the income gap with whites. According to researchers at Brown University, this change in Asian American earnings and success was not primarily the result of superior education, but rather because of the simple fact that white Americans became less racist toward their Asian counterparts.

That’s not to say that Asian American discrimination doesn’t exist today or to imply that all Asian Americans are well-off. In the U.S., income inequality among Asians is greater than that of all other racial groups. Southeast Asian Americans in particular have poverty rates substantially higher than the national average. Indulging in the model minority myth by insisting that blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans reach the success of the Asian American community through grit and determination not only ignores the institutional racism that affects those underrepresented groups, but also the racial disparities that still exist within the diverse Asian American experience. 

Instead of demanding that minority students exhibit unrealistic levels of “merit” in the face of enormous struggles, let’s do away with admissions preferences that exist to serve the entrenched elite. 

‘THE GLASS FLOOR’ AND AFFIRMATIVE ACTION FOR RICH WHITE PEOPLE

While most of the debate around college admissions centers on affirmative action for racial minorities, not enough attention has been paid to the unfair and illogical advantages granted to privileged whites. A Duke University study published in September discovered that 43 percent of white students at Harvard were athletes, legacies, or children of donors and faculty. For other races, the figure was 16 percent. The research concluded that only a quarter of these students would have passed through the front gates of this elite university without these factors. 

Another study found that having parents who once attended top universities “equated to a 160-point increase in an SAT score when being considered for admission” at those colleges. Research on 30 of those institutions shows that legacy students have a 45 percent higher admissions rate than non-legacy applicants. The legacy preference in admissions is the antithesis of the “merit-based system” that affirmative action opponents so ardently advocate for: Students are evaluated based on the accomplishments of their parents instead of their own skills and achievements. If those who fight against affirmative action do so because they believe in assessing students based on their individual “merit,” then they should oppose legacy preferences just as passionately.

As studious and hardworking students sacrifice for the chance to gain quality education, wealthy lacrosse players are placed in top universities for few reasons other than their parents donating millions of dollars to those very institutions (cough, cough, Jared Kushner). Dubbed the “Glass Floor” by author and researcher Richard Reeves, the widespread phenomenon perpetuated by colleges’ corrupt admissions standards is one in which unqualified elites are unlikely to lose any of their wealth and power because of guaranteed name-brand education and connections that land them at top jobs in large corporations. It’s ridiculous that progressive institutions of higher learning that claim to care about combatting income and racial inequities in their admissions processes continue to promote an informal American aristocracy by keeping the country’s upper class ahead of everyone else. College admissions offices are accomplices to other powerful sociopolitical factors that ensure the rich stay at the top—no matter what.

It’s time colleges stop rewarding the wealthy for reaching into their wallets. It’s time we stop pretending that underprivileged minorities are the reason our education system is broken. And it’s time we realize that positive change in our colleges and our country is only possible if we give everyone a chance to succeed. Affirmative action is one of the best ways to do just that.

*For the sake of brevity, we refer to non-Hispanic white Americans merely as “white.” 

The Muse welcomes all student opinions and encourages readers to share their thoughts on this or any other recent Muse article by submitting letters to the editor. We look forward to reading and publishing the best of what our student body has to say.  

About the Writers
Photo of Jarom Gordon
Jarom Gordon, Opinion Editor

Communications junior Jarom Gordon is currently the opinion editor on The Muse and hopes to contribute original ideas and compelling articles to the publication....

Photo of Miles Wang
Miles Wang, Opinion Writer

Communications sophomore Miles Wang is a first-year opinion staffer for The Muse. He is passionate about journalism and debate and loves writing and speaking...

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