Affirmative Action: A Cruel Policy Masquerading as Progressivism

Racially based affirmative action policies make college admissions a less inclusive and egalitarian process. What seems like a noble way to rectify institutional injustice, past and present, is in actuality a vicious means of perpetuating classism and racial exclusion. Instead of focusing on race, schools should use admissions policies that factor in the total assets of a family and secondary-school attendance. This would allow disadvantaged students to compete with their more privileged counterparts.

Sociologist William Julius Wilson observes that when preferential policies are designed to assign a just distribution of advantages to groups, the most privileged members of these groups gain the majority of the benefits. These affluent individuals are predominantly chosen for preferred positions like well-paying jobs or college admission spots.

Policies that focus on reducing racial disparities are harmful to the poor from every racial group but especially those from underrepresented groups that preferential policies attempt to help. Race-based affirmative action ends up denying many deserving people from low-income backgrounds the opportunity to go to an elite university.

Historical racial oppression, in and of itself, does not warrant priority standing in the admissions process. If oppression manifests itself in socio-economic disadvantages for a person of color, then they should have an advantage, but giving wealthy black or Hispanic students from well-funded secondary schools advantages over poor and middle-class whites and Asians is not justifiable. Poor whites and Asians have a small fraction of the resources available to upper-class minorities. Scoring a 32 on the ACT from a low-wealth home and community is much more indicative of merit than scoring a 35 as a child from a wealthy family. Contradictory to the goal of remedying current racial discrimination, race-based affirmative action does not help poor blacks or Hispanics who have the greatest exposure to current discriminatory institutions.

But many argue that affirmative action is meant to correct for past racial injustice. If this were the case then Asians, who faced academic, career, and immigration restrictions up until the late 1950s, would not be handicapped.

Unfortunately proponents brush these problems under the rug by arguing that the position of upper-class minority students as the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action is a benefit to struggling minorities. Similar to DuBois and his talented tenth, supporters of this argument believe that affluent minorities who gain entry into elite colleges will help lift the minority group through their leadership and example. But this idea fails for two reasons. First, what is to say that the poor minority student who lost out under race-conscious affirmative action wouldn’t have served just as effectively as a leader? Second, the argument is not backed up by evidence. For example, the number of black medical school graduates statistically does not have any effect on health care accessibility and affordability in low-income predominantly black communities.

Proponents of affirmative action argue that race factors into admissions minutely by serving as a tiebreaker in cases of equally qualified candidates. This belief is false. A 2004 Princeton study of over 124,374 applications to elite colleges found that on a 1600 point scale, black applicants received a boost equivalent to 230 extra SAT points, Hispanics received 185 points, and Asian applicants received a 50 point penalty. The adjusted score differential of 280 points between blacks and Asians is representative of the disparity between scoring in the 80th percentile nationally and the average admitted student at Harvard. Hardly a tiebreaker, race is a deciding factor in elite college admissions.

Affirmative action policies, in consequence, serve as quotas on Asian Americans. Ron Unz points that Asian-American representation at Ivy League colleges hasn’t increased between 1992 and 2011, despite the doubling of their college-age population. This restriction on Asian-American enrollment during their population growth has had a larger impact than Harvard’s 1925 Jewish quota.

Family wealth is a strong indicator of educational outcomes. A 2012 NBER study found that a $10,000 increase in home value during the high-school years increased the chance of attending a public flagship by 2.0 percent and decreased the probability of attending a community college by 1.6 percent. Using wealth as the socio-economic metric for admissions would ensure that poor minorities, who have not been able to accumulate assets, are competitive in the admissions process. Evaluating the secondary-school of an applicant would give colleges a better understanding of the educational opportunities available to the applicant and how effectively those opportunities were used. Across the nation, 7 percent of poor whites reside in poverty-stricken areas while that number is 23 percent for poor blacks. These areas more often than not have poorly funded schools that severely depress educational and professional outcomes.

Affirmative action is cruel and unsound in its reasoning. If we are genuinely concerned with social justice then it is an absolute necessity that this policy is replaced by wealth and school-based admissions criteria that will not disenfranchise poor students or other minority groups. Students who must overcome disadvantages because of race, in spite of their affluence, can communicate their experience through other means, such as an essay, without the necessity of classist and harmful policies.


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23 comments

  1. 8
    Uriel Medina '16 says:

    You make strong statements but don’t make any reference to how this *actually* plays out in admissions decisions. The only study you cite is a whopping 12 years old, and while it provides a framework to think about the issues you present, it isn’t very convincing today. From my experiences chatting with admissions (at Swarthmore and other similar institutions) the racial or ethnic background of an applicant can play a role as an additional “point” granted to their applications. Other points include essay syntax, sports, community participation, etc. It does not seem as generous as you paint it out to be. No one is at Swarthmore (or any college like it) solely based on their race/ethnicity. All that said, I *do* agree that admissions at elite colleges should be more class and wealth cognizant. But that can be implemented without making an argument to tear down the arguably minor role race/ethnicity plays in admissions. Or at least, there’s nothing said here that convincingly argues it is too powerful, despite the insinuation as such.

    1. 2
      David Wong says:

      There is no good reason to use someone’s ethnicity or skin color against them. Even if used partially , why use it at all ?. The poor white, yellow or brown student all need a leg up. Whether your ideology is left or right, we can all agree on this. Using a persons skin color as some type of marker to gain admission is a sordid business. Martin Luther King said it correctly..“I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Sadly Dr King is still waiting

    2. 0
      Navid Kiassat ( User Karma: 21 ) says:

      It would be quite difficult to provide an accurate description of how affirmative action plays out over all the elite grad schools, LACs, research universities, and such. Admissions isn’t a very transparent process in general, let alone a sensitive topic like affirmative action. I would not have been able to quantify such findings even if I had access to them. While the Princeton study is 12 years old, it is still the most thorough that I am aware of(I may very well be wrong). Of course admissions committees will say that it is only an additional “point”, but the stark disparity between the demographics of race-neutral colleges and race-aware colleges suggests that this isn’t true. I never claim that anyone at Swat or any other elite college is there solely because of their race. No one is at Swat solely because of one attribute. That being said, I don’t really see evidence for race playing only a minor factor in admissions. Like I previously mentioned, the differences in the ethnic demographics between race-neutral and other colleges is substantial and suggests otherwise.

      Thank you very much for reading the article and taking the time to bring up your points of contention. Comments such as yours force me to think through my points and are always welcome! Congrats on graduating too.

      1. 1
        Uriel Medina '16 says:

        Well, quite a few schools across the range you reference (from R1 to LACs) have submitted detailed affidavits and/or an amicus curiae in the more recent legal challenges to AA in which they detail how it is used, its limits, its aims/purpose, and why they so strongly defend its practice. Swarthmore actually submitted one in Abby v Texas. And also, while the Princeton study seems to make a strong case, it is by no means definitive because standardized tests are more and more discredited as being unbiased, and the study looks only at two factors: what their scores were and whether they were admitted. Not extracurricular activities, their essays, community service, learning experiences outside the classroom or test prep, or any of the dozens of things admissions counselors take into consideration. I think your perspective would have benefited from scheduling a meeting with Jim Bock, or an admissions counselors, and asking them your very frank questions. They’re more transparent than you’d think regarding AA.

        I think: 1) my point stands that no one is at Swarthmore (or any school for that matter) just because of their race—admissions has been convincingly characterized enough as of a lottery already (lemme know if you want me to provide you the articles on this point), so race/ethnicity was not anyone’s defining factor; and 2) referring back to the legal challenge to AA (specifically Abby v Texas), it’s pretty evident that a big chunk of anti-AA sentiments rely on a wild imaginary of undeserving minorities that sparks inflammatory, cynical comments and legal challenges—like in the case of Abby, an academically above-average (not outstanding) white student who seems to have overlooked her own deficiencies and instead placed her frustrations on who she *thought* took her place. Her arguments did not stand in court and the University’s policies were justified. I’m not saying yours is the same, but I think you do yourself a disservice by competing race based AA and wealth/class against each other (more on this in the last paragraph). But to be honest, and this may just be me, I did read some of that similar baseless/misplaced frustration on AA in your piece. But you’re at Swat! You made it! You’re one of the fortunate ones, like I was. No one “took your spot.” So now that you’re “in” make the case for wealth/class.

        What are your numbers behind this “stark-disparity” you mention? It reminds me that Swat has a 6% black student population (www.swarthmore.edu/about/facts-figures).

        But going back to my point about seeing two differing arguments here: one the one hand, you’re making a convincing case for a kind of wealth and class “AA,” and on the other, you’re tearing down race based AA. Both arguments don’t seem inherently or logically connected to me. You can sustain the wealth/class argument without making claims on the legitimacy of an AA policy. Like I said, I agree that wealth/class is super important, and you make that case pretty well here. But that doesn’t imply or justify the discontinuation of race-based policy. Maybe Swarthmore thinks it would benefit from the inclusion of both rich and poor minorities. If anything, I think by advocating solely for an increase in wealth/class AA, both policies would in effect balance out because many minorities *and* non-minorities would qualify under wealth/class AA. Trying to tear down race based AA would be double the work and the arguments against it are pretty patchy, as I think the conversation and legal precedence has shown. I look forward to your response if you choose to reply, but if not, at any rate I enjoyed the mental exercise of reading your piece. I think it makes some good points but it spreads itself too much to make arguments that don’t hold up. I hope you enjoy pass/fail, it was one of my favorite semesters at Swat.

        1. 0
          Navid Kiassat ( User Karma: 21 ) says:

          I did not know that schools, including Swarthmore, had submitted affidavits in recent challenges to AA and the Abby v Texas case. So, that is absolutely on me that I did not find and engage with those sources. Also, I may have been quick to assume that I would have been turned away by the administration had I asked questions regarding affirmative action. I acknowledge that these two steps would’ve made my research more thorough.

          As far as the Princeton study goes, it quantified admissions boosts in terms of SAT scores. It was not an evaluation of SAT score disparities among different student sub-groups. It was not just an evaluation of scores and admissions. However, you are right that many parts of the admissions process do not lend themselves to objective comparison.

          To address your other points, I do not think it is relevant that there is no one at Swarthmore solely because of race. The question is whether race was a tipping point (whether you think race as a tipping point is good or bad is not important, I am just reframing the issue). While I can’t comment on Swarthmore specifically, the evidence is substantial that there are many people, especially of Asian descent, who are not at schools because of their race. Not solely because of their race, but race was a deciding factor. How else can you account for the fact that Asians hover around 20% representation at race-conscious elite schools but are the largest group at race-neutral R1s.

          If you want evidence of a stark disparity of demographics, compare the demographics of Caltech, Stuyvesant, UC Berkeley, and UCLA with race conscious elite schools, even those in California such as Pomona College and Stanford.

          My contention race based affirmative action, even when used in conjunction with class based, is the preference that would necessarily be given to wealthier minorities over poor whites and Asians. Also, the fact that race-based AA has effectively served as an exclusionary quota on Asians in general. I understand that these claims are considered controversial and need to be argued from separate from this comment.

          I appreciate your willingness to engage. I do want to take the time to write a more rigorous opposition to race based AA, and I may do so in the future. Unfortunately, there is only so much to put in a 600-800-word Op-Ed. I did not have nearly enough room to confront many of the arguments for race based AA.

  2. 6
    James Madden '06 says:

    Welcome to Swat Navid. I was one of those poor, first-generation, white students whose status this essay is concerned with. Like many other poor, first-gen students, I felt incredibly distant from the dominant culture at Swarthmore. I was very lucky from my first day on campus to have been taken care of by the communities of color on campus. The Black Cultural Center and the Intercultural Center were havens for me, even if they were places I had to know when to step back from to ensure they remained havens. Swarthmore’s relative diversity compared to other elite institutions ensured that I had fellow students and older, mentor-classmates whose cultures I could connect with. It ensured that as a poor Boston-Irish kid from a truly diverse neighborhood, I could feel at least somewhat comfortable in an elite institution. Still, Swarthmore was and is a place where the dominant culture is white, American, upper-middle class. It’s not an easy place for anyone, but to work as a positive, transformational life experience for anyone not from that background Swarthmore must preserve and expand upon its diversity. Ten years on from Swat, I know that Swat’s relative diversity has been fundamental to my educational, career, and life success. Navid, keep learning, keep debating ideas, but always question because the people you want to help might be the ones you hurt in the end.

    1. 0
      Navid Kiassat ( User Karma: 21 ) says:

      Hi James, thank you for taking the time to respond and share your experience. I appreciate it. My article was not an attack on cultural centers or campus diversity. I understand the important role they have in creating the kind of environment that allows students to thrive. I am absolutely open to critiques of my article. My intentions are sincere and engaging with opposing viewpoints will only help me develop a more robust position in the future whether it aligns with my current views or not. Thanks

  3. 3
    Swat Alum, '08 says:

    Really shocked by how fundamentally this author misunderstands the purpose of affirmative action. It is not just about “rectifying historical injustice” though, yes, there is a mountain of historical racially motivated injustice out there, and yes, that matters. But beyond that, there is an affirmative benefit– to ALL students at institutions that engage in affirmative action, not just people of color– to creating a student body diverse in life experiences and perspectives and voices. And while yes, economic diversity is super important, but so too is racial diversity. And that means affirmatively making sure people of color are getting into universities in meaningful numbers. This is not a zero sum situation– admissions offices can and do seek to create a diverse student body along many different axes.

    I hope for this author’s sake– and that of all those who will interact with them while at Swarthmore and beyond– that some real soul searching can happen to get to a place where they can approach all aspects of daily life–whether in picking topics to blog about, or deciding whether to intervene in a crisis–from a perspective of “How can I be a real ally here? How can I affirmatively stand up for racial justice?”

  4. 3

    FWIW, I tend to think of affirmative action (in its ideal form) like a “diversity index”:

    Something that asks “how will admitting this individual impact the diversity of our institution?” where “more heterogeneous” means a better score and “more homogenous” means a worse score. This score then becomes simply one variable weighted among others to determine admission into the college. (Or, if you’re a Schwartzian, admission into the “good enough” pool from which applicants are then randomly selected.)

    What that means right now is giving preference to BOTH People of Color AND people who are economically disadvantaged.

    What it means in general is giving preference proportional to how underrepresented an individual is in the group when they apply.

    I’m curious if an approach like this would address the problems raised here while continuing to allow us to pursue greater racial diversity in admissions, and I’m curious how close it is to what we actually do.

  5. 3
    Maurice Eldridge says:

    As usual, I don’t understand why folks write anonymously on public subjects like this one. Why not own your opinions and why not require it of letter writers as a news publication?
    Maurice Eldridge ’61

  6. 2
    A Swattie says:

    While I agree with this article and argument 100%, I can’t help but think that the article quality itself (which is good as is) could be boosted a bit by the addition of statistics or by citing studies that have been done on the subject. I am not saying that I don’t believe the article without them, but I do believe that it would add positively to the article.

  7. 1
    Class of 2017 says:

    For some strange reason, people of color are constantly asked to justify why we have been granted a seat at the table. Like…at. every. step. of. the. way. Low income POC are told they got in because they’re low income. Wealthy POC are told they got in because they’re POC. It’s never anything more than that.

    Black students make up 6% of Swarthmore’s population right now…..its unfortunate that all 90 of us (out of 1500) are taking up space that more deserving students should get. Thanks, Race-based Affirmative Action.

    1. 0
      Navid Kiassat ( User Karma: 21 ) says:

      Hi! Thank you for taking the time to read and respond to my article. I was not asking anyone POC at Swarthmore to justify their place at the college. First, this article is not specific to Swarthmore, and it is unknown to what extent it may or may not apply to the admissions process at Swarthmore. Articles regarding admissions practices can not speak to the merit of individuals. It would be in bad taste and wrong if I or anyone took their beliefs about affirmative action and used that to judge whether POC’s they came into contact with were “unqualified” or “qualified”.

  8. 1
    Meiri Anto ( User Karma: 7 ) says:

    I think your article rests substantially on the assumption that affirmative action is meant to correct for past racial injustice and/or allow under-privileged students to go to college. This assumption in my opinion needs more careful questioning. What really IS the intention behind institutions to have race-based AA?

    You’ve outlined two motives, but I posit just as an exercise that these other reasons for AA could be more relevant for institutions and perhaps just as justifiable:
    1. Diversity for minority’s benefit – perhaps admitting people with diverse races allows minorities on campus better college experiences because more people look like them and less people look like the dominant white group. IMO other diversity in backgrounds, such as class, are also important and underemphasized with respect to this motive.
    2. Integration – having minorities and non-minorities interact helps everyone in the campus community overall understand more about each other’s backgrounds and have better learning experiences. One cannot deny that one’s racial identity does define a significant part of one’s experience, no matter other parts of one’s identity. I think this benefit is the MAIN reason institutions want affirmative action.
    3. Publicity – In today’s PR climate, it looks bad for institutions to not be racially diverse and they will face deserved criticism.
    4. Correcting for future injustice – Regardless of their upbringing getting to college, after graduation they will inevitably face discrimination at work, dating, law enforcement, and too many other aspects of daily life that a poor white student won’t have to face due to the difference in race. AA could be trying to correct for these future handicaps.

  9. 1
    anonymous says:

    I don’t necessary support or oppose affirmative action, but I think one must also consider that there are plenty of affirmative action programs for whites as well. One such example: legacy admissions. If your grandparents and great-uncle all went to college X, you probably have a better chance of getting in also. I don’t know of too many current black students whose grandparents went to Swat (because we let in zero or very few black students at that time), so legacy admissions are essentially an affirmative action program for whites. I’m sure we can think of other examples. That being the case, I don’t think it’s necessarily unreasonable or unethical to have affirmative action for non-white groups as well to balance things out. The alternative would be to eliminate all programs that essentially amount to affirmative action for any group.

    1. 0
      Je 18 says:

      That the legacy admissions currently benefit white people more is only a phenomenon of this current time / era. The legacy admissions program is completely race-neutral.
      If “balancing out” is truly sought for, then, just as mentioned in the article, I would like to see an affirmative action program a) for the poorer area and the otherwise economically challenged, b) for the educationally disadvantaged, and c) for Asian Americans. It is racial hypocrisy otherwise.

      1. 5
        Josh Mundinger '18 says:

        To address one point-certainly the whiteness of legacy applicants is a historical phenomenon, but that doesn’t mean we can simply dismiss it as “race-neutral”. In years ahead it may be, now it isn’t.

      2. 2
        anonymous (same one as 8/30 9:53 pm) says:

        “That the legacy admissions currently benefit white people more is only a phenomenon of this current time / era. The legacy admissions program is completely race-neutral.”
        Perhaps in a society where racial discrimination is unknown and has never occurred, it might be true that legacy admissions is race-neutral. But not in the world we live in now. That’s akin to saying that Reconstruction-era “grandfather clauses” meant to disenfranchise freed slaves were race-neutral — after all, they were based on whether your grandfather could vote, not on your race. Current policies must be appropriate for “this current time/era”, not some idealized vacuum.

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