The injustice of affirmative action in college admissions

ELANA DESANTIS

For many students here at Guilderland, race isn’t something that we spend a lot of time thinking about. While GHS is a place filled with all kinds of diverse interests, it is not a place filled with all kinds of diverse people: we are an overwhelmingly white school. There is a limited amount of individuals able to see race through the often sharper lens of minority. I am guilty of it too – as a white American I easily forget the privileges I garner simply because of that fact. Recently, however, as the college admissions wave crashes in once again, the sometimes-difficult contemplation about who we are, where we come from, and how that affects us peeks its head above the surface.

“You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say you are free to compete with all the others, and still just believe that you have been completely fair.” President Lyndon Johnson said this in 1965, as he so eloquently described the rationale for the continued, then contemporary, use of affirmative action in the United States. Affirmative Action programs are meant to help bolster opportunities for minority groups who have been subject to both the visible and invisible barriers of discrimination. They are an attempt at leveling the playing field so all citizens, regardless of race, ethnicity or gender, are able to have their slice of the American Dream. I’ll give you the logic: Two hundred fifty years of slavery, ninety years of Jim Crow, sixty years of “separate but equal,” and the continual, omnipotent gray cloud of discrimination under the police and justice system. And this idea of marginalization isn’t unique to African Americans – as the U.S. population swelled to become the melting pot it is now, nearly every ethnic minority group – Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans – has been subjected to some form of discrimination under the law. Affirmative Action programs began just after the Civil War and continue today, through employment and recruiting procedures, as well as how it pertains to many Guilderland students – college admissions. And while it should be clear at this point that I believe sturdily in the principles that Affirmative Action are built upon, I have recently begun to ask the question that unbearably arises each year around this time: Is Affirmative Action in college admissions truly fair?

Before I begin making any kind of case, I feel it behooves me as a senior and as the author of this article to briefly explain my own college process.  I applied to school Early Decision and by incredible luck and potential divine intervention, I was one of the lucky few who knew where they were going by mid-December of this past year. I’m saying this not to toot my own horn, but rather to explain that this article isn’t some angry retaliation at a hoard of rejection letters. I also think it behooves me to mention this: Personally, I don’t know if I think Affirmative Action in colleges should change drastically, it’s an idea that I struggle with. But I do know that there is an argument to amending the system, and it’s one that I believe is important to make.

It is fairly well known that college admissions is not a perfect science – not even close, especially when it comes to elite universities. Acceptance to top-tier schools, even by the most qualified of qualified students is never close to a guarantee. Perfect grades, amazing standardized test scores, a host of extracurricular activities, and great essays have now become the norm among applications to say, an Ivy League institution. The admissions standards are so high that simply meeting them means relatively little. These standards, however, aren’t consistent from applicant to applicant. Students that fall under the category of “underrepresented minority” or URM (typically black, Hispanic, or Native American), are often subject to a relative detente by admissions officers regarding the level at which their applications are scrutinized. I’m not claiming that URM students who are accepted to prestigious universities aren’t deserving of it, and that they aren’t incredibly bright, driven people, because in order to get into a top school you must be. However, what I am saying is that many, many rejected applicants are as well. More specifically, Asian-American applicants.

I wrote earlier that the basis of Affirmative Action was to help level the playing field, and on its surface, easing the acceptance standards for URMs does that. It uses the idea that these students have been given less opportunity, and inherently don’t have the same platform that say, white people have, to achieve high academic success. I’ll get back to this point, but for now I will say yes, that is true. Being white in America has a lot of advantages that other minorities don’t receive. So while Affirmative Action has an arguably reasonable basis behind changing admissions standards for URMs, it’s harder to account for the raised admissions standards that Asian-American individuals fall victim to. In 2009, in their book “No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal,” Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade and researcher Alexandria Walton Radford, studied applicants from 1997 and found that whites were three times, Hispanics six times, and blacks more than fifteen times as likely to be accepted at a US university as Asian-Americans. And this was data from now nearly twenty years ago. Okay, there are inherent disadvantages that black people face in America, however, I believe firmly that there aren’t inherent advantages to being an Asian person, especially not in comparison to white Americans.

The reason for this disparity in standards is the case of diversity – we need it in colleges. Diversity is a good thing in a learning environment. It helps give a wide range of perspectives. It benefits both minorities who are able to have people that they can relate to ethnically, and for whites who can understand the world better through their classmates. Schools aim to create a student population reflective of the population as a whole.  If colleges ignored race in their admissions process, we wouldn’t get the same cross-section of humanity that campuses would like to reflect. Take UC Berkeley, arguably the most prestigious school in the UC system, a system that in 1997, began a race-blind admissions process. In 2014, Asian Americans were the largest demographic to be admitted, making up 42.8 percent of admissions offers, followed by whites with 28.4 percent. While California does have a high Asian-American population, they are not the majority ethnic group, not even close.

So, a race-blind admissions process does create some diversity issues, I can agree with that. However, something feels inherently wrong about essentially punishing a demographic for having high levels of achievement. In many Asian-American households, education is an important value, which is why we see such staggering levels of incredibly successful Asian students. The thing here to note is this, though, successful students in general tend to come from families where education is a stressed ideal. It doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, Asian, Hispanic – if your parents expect you to take school seriously, you likely will. Asian-Americans aren’t successful because they are Asian, they are successful because they come from an environment where they are expected to be, just like the vast majority of every other top student from every race. If colleges raised their admissions standards off of which students were read to when they were little, encouraged to take enrichment opportunities or watch educational television, I imagine that their acceptances would change. This noted disparity in Asian-American academic success and everyone else has little do with race and more to do with values, values that are more prominent in Asian communities but likely the most prominent on the campuses of elite universities, where the majority of students benefited from the very same things that Asians are being penalized for.

This idea that academic success is derived not from your race, but rather from your household, is the driving force for much of the backlash against Affirmative Action. This logic is also pretty simple: You have a black student and a white student, both with two parents who are college educated attending the same high school and falling in the same socioeconomic bracket. It is challenging to find any disparity in opportunity for academic success between these two students. They both come from households where education is important, they have the same chance to take challenging classes, join clubs and sports, and neither has to worry about family economics more than the other. However, when it comes to applying to colleges, the black student has an advantage because they are black. I am someone who hates the absurd claims of so-called “reverse racism,” or the idea that any of this somehow makes up for the atrocities that African-Americans have been subject to in our history as a country and still today. I’m not complaining about my whiteness, I’m just stating the fact that this is true.

I’m not saying that Affirmative Action needs to go completely. It does a good job helping bring up minority groups that haven’t been given a fair hand, but it also tips the scales against Asian-Americans, and at times, poorer white people. The most readily available amendments to this entire system stabs at the demographic that we haven’t talked about yet: the poor. People from challenging economic backgrounds are at the most disadvantageous position when it comes to academic opportunity. Beyond just the stressors and struggles of daily life around or below the poverty line, students from low-income areas often attend worse public schools, and are less likely to have parents who graduated college. Here is the important thing though: the URMs I was talking about earlier all have significantly higher poverty rates than white people. If Affirmative Action focused more on class and family background, and less on race itself, theoretically, diversity should occur in an organic way.

I know that this isn’t a perfect solution. I know that discrimination isn’t black and white (no pun intended), but rather a dynamic mosaic of little things, of micro-aggressions, of deeply rooted and unrecognized stigmas we find within ourselves. I know that in the search for equality, we have so, so far to go as a country. But I also know this: I have spent hours at night doing APUSH, gnawing through calculus, stressing over English papers. I have seen my friends do the same, friends who are white and friends who are black, friends who are Hispanic and friends who are Asian. While our struggles are often unique, we are bound by our work ethic and love of learning, our late nights and our long readings. So when college admissions comes down to the nitty-gritty, when rejections make us question our efforts or hurt for our friends, white, Asian or anything else, it is known: we could not have done this any way but together.

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