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Affirmative Action: Failed Promises & The Brighter Future

During the time of Dr. King, when America boldly established that its original promise would live up to the meaning of its creed, that equality under the law must be the privilege of all Americans, this country began on a path of reimagined possibility for the victims of its oppressive past. And in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson took a step towards realizing this dream that would both inspire and divide generations to come: he mandated that educational institutions embrace affirmative action to repudiate the discriminatory norms of the past. In its inception, affirmative action sought out to balance educational outcomes between minority groups and the white majority, arguing that it was ultimately America’s deep institutional biases and refusal to embrace integration that propagated two centuries of inequality. But however inspired this policy might have been, affirmative action is the patient zero for this government’s political and policy failures to combat inequality. 

Margaret Thatcher once said that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” and the madame prime minister was right: dismantling systemic bias against minority communities should be a universal ethic, but the success of race-based affirmative action has fallen short of this goal. The central tenet of affirmative action advocates is two fold. Surging members of disenfranchised groups into colleges and universities will, first, cultivate competitive skill sets within individuals who have had an inequitable access to resources and, second, will also benefit these communities when degree recipients bring their skills back into disenfranchised areas.

Typically, this policy’s success has been judged by the increase in minority degree recipients, but this metric is largely deceptive. Affirmative action was designed to balance educational and economic outcomes between minority groups and the white majority, so the policy’s ultimate success should not be judged only by the absolute gains minority communities have made. It should be judged by how much minority communities have been able to gain relative to the white majority, because inequality can grow even when minority communities are making gains in absolute terms.    

How it Works

In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled in The Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, that race-based quotas in affirmative action were inherently unconstitutional because quotas in admissions violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as the Equal Protections Clause under the 14th Amendment. Within this landmark decision, however, the court sustained that admissions offices can use an applicant’s race within a multivariate standard of analysis to account for discrimination within the admissions process in addition to an inequitable distribution of resources throughout disenfranchised communities. Despite that this decision banned the use of racial quotas in admissions, it formalized the modern practice of race-conscious admissions. Affirmative action, in its modern incarnation, therefore takes on the same goal as a quota-based system — systematically increasing the number of disenfranchised students within an incoming class — but does so with a different mechanism. These policies commonly follow two different guidelines. First, the vast majority of college admissions offices will set general diversity goals around what proportion of the incoming class should be of minority status. In other words, part of an applicant’s admissions decision is weighted by their race in order to create an incoming class that has a makeup representative of the general population. The empirical problem with this admissions process is that students who should not be benefiting from minority status have learned how to troll the system. The recent college admissions scandals involving Felicity Huffman and professional college athletic departments throughout the country revealed how wealthier students were coached into faking minority status just to take advantage of affirmative action programs and diversity inclusion efforts. These anecdotes only unveil a much larger problem: there is no verification process in college admissions offices to determine the veracity of an applicant’s minority status. So as long as someone could justify some genetic relationship to a disenfranchised group, they can claim minority status and reap the benefits. 

This policy failure is particularly harmful under a system designed around diversity goals because students who can claim minority status but have sufficient financial and community-based resources decrease the pool of minority students accepted who don’t have those resources — who don’t have a social safety net. The recent scandals also beg the question: if race-based affirmative action policies are misidentifying the minority students that need it most, are racial categories in affirmative action the best way to provide benefits to minority communities? In the recent lawsuit filed against Harvard University alleging discrimination against Asian Americans, “the university’s own analysis showed that 71 percent of African American and Latin[x] students at Harvard come from wealthy backgrounds.” Furthermore, the same analysis underlined how “the admissions preference for black applicants is almost twice as large as the assist for students from families making $60,000 a year or less.” One of the foundational assumptions underneath race-based affirmative action is that minority students should automatically gain an advantage in admissions because, categorically, they had lower access to early-life resources. While this may be true for a plethora of minority students, race-based affirmative action fails when it favors minority students who don’t have a resource disadvantage over those who do. 

The second popular guideline, and perhaps the more fatal one, is the weighting of an applicant’s GPA and test scores in order to account for their minority status. More specifically, Latino and Black applicants empirically receive 130-310 point bumps in their SAT scores to account for their lack of access to equitable resources. While it is also true that an applicant’s lower socioeconomic class is used to weight SAT scores, “social class makes little difference to the likelihood of admission until one reaches the highest SAT range.” With respect to the question of inequality, race-based affirmative action that does not equally weigh an applicant’s socioeconomic disadvantages will increasingly fail to select for disenfranchised applicants who did not have equitable early-life resources. As in the case of Harvard’s Black population coming from predominantly wealthy households, this weighting standard does not accurately address systemic deficiencies in the amount of resources disenfranchised groups have access to. 

More harmfully, however, this weighting standard dismisses a critical component of inequality. Ultimately, ensuring that no group has the power to discriminate against another isn’t dependent on knocking down barriers. It’s incumbent upon arming disenfranchised groups with the resources that make them as competitive and economically competent as the white majority so they can never be discriminated against in the future. The weighting component of affirmative action drives at the heart of the policy’s false assumptions. An isolated emphasis on simply increasing the number of minority students at colleges and universities does not automatically equate to Black and Latinos being more competitive with the white majority. A student’s high school GPA or SAT score are highly predictive of their performance in college, and a student’s performance in college is strongly predictive of career success. 

In fact, “when the most prestigious schools relax their admissions policies in order to admit more minority students, they start a chain reaction, resulting in a substantial credentials gap at nearly all selective schools.” In other words, affirmative action policies have increased the gap between the number of white and Black students who drop out and the racial gap between GPAs. This is not to say that race-based affirmative action and diversity goals decrease the absolute gains that disenfranchised groups have made. In fact, these programs have increased absolute gains, but a more holistic analysis of disenfranchised groups in comparison to the white majority paints a much dimmer picture. The core theory of race-based affirmative action was that inequality is produced and increased overtime when disenfranchised groups are locked out of the opportunities and resources afforded to the white majority. The application of affirmative action tests this theory itself: by significantly increasing the availability of secondary education to disenfranchised groups, affirmative action advocates argue that inequality will diminish over time. The exact opposite trend has occurred, however. 

Motivated from an ethical and compassionate desire to rectify inequality, affirmative action standards have glossed over the genuine attributes that would make disenfranchised students increasingly economically competitive. It is not enough to increase the amount of degree recipients in minority communities. In fact, this policy further emboldens the inequality it’s trying to prevent: normalizing a lower standard for disenfranchised groups directly impacts the entire track of primary education within minority communities. Relative performance in primary education is a strong predictor not just of success in college but career competitiveness as well, so when the policy priority is focused on balancing outcomes at the collegiate level, the underlying factors that lead to career success are largely ignored. In other words, if affirmative action fails to raise standards, then this policy only creates the illusion that more minorities receiving college degrees reduces inequality. This paradox manifests with clarity in the economy — when one group is consistently set up to develop lower skill levels than another group, then the group that is trained to have higher qualifications will proceed to get better jobs and more stable careers on average

Furthermore, because affirmative action measures are primarily focused on the racial makeup of an incoming class, and not the racial makeup of different majors, representation of the Black and Latino communities in STEM-based majors has also declined. This is particularly harmful to these communities, because STEM-based majors often lead to careers that are both more profitable and more stable than in most other industries. It’s therefore no surprise that the income gap between Black and white Americans isn’t shrinking despite the prevalence of race-based affirmative action. However, the most damning impact of the “weighing standard” is the normalization of minorities having relatively lower test scores and getting the same degree as their white counterparts, opposed to having the same qualifications and getting the same degree as their white counterparts. Race-based affirmative action does not close the outcome deficit because it reinforces a reality that minorities can only be equal if the government engineers outcomes. 

To argue that the government must engineer outcomes because it is directly responsible for enforcing past oppression is to fundamentally misunderstand the impact of oppression. The legacy of oppression is two-fold. First, oppression in the form of institutionalized exclusion certainly leads to unequal outcomes and should be immediately rectified by the government. Secondly, however, oppression also manifests as a difference in capability across groups not because the government made one group more economically competitive than another but because the government allowed one group to develop more competitive skill sets through an unequal distribution of resources and opportunity. This form of oppression’s legacy should not be rectified by the government engineering outcomes because seismic shifts in nationwide economic outcomes are not something the government has the capacity to manufacture. Ability and competitiveness are not qualities an institution can hand down. They are functions of a fair allocation of resources and opportunity that the government can control. Regardless of how powerful the government can become, free markets objectively and primarily respond to an individual’s relative ability. Simply increasing minority degree recipients doesn’t combat long-term inequality when the educational system doesn’t also ensure that disenfranchised students have the underlying academic resources that would make them as competitive once they enter college. 

A Fallacious Promise of Racial Integration

Advocates of affirmative action not only sought to strengthen the educational and economic capabilities of minority groups but also to tear down the unconscious racial biases that were reinforced by institutions of power in America. They theorized that rapidly integrating minorities into institutions that were predominantly white would deteriorate racist norms through a diverse exposure to different racial communities. But however morally virtuous in theory, affirmative action in practice has failed to achieve the goal of integration. Mandating that incoming classes are racially diverse and that minorities are fairly represented has not led to increasing levels of acceptance. In fact, because of widening racial disparities within different major programs, affirmative action in admissions fails to foster integration amongst students once they begin their academic lives. Students are primarily socialized within their majors and with students in similar GPA ranges because these factors are the best indicators of common interests. Affirmative action programs that proliferate the racial GPA gap and the major selection gap have substantially isolated racial communities on college campuses from one another. In Michelle Obama’s senior thesis at Princeton University, she questioned 400 black alumni about “whether they felt ‘much more comfortable with Blacks,’ ‘much more comfortable with Whites,’ or ‘about equally comfortable with Blacks and Whites’ in various contexts during three different periods in their lives — before attending Princeton, while students at Princeton, and after leaving Princeton.” In her analysis, the former First Lady found that, after attending Princeton, the percentage of Black alumni who were “much more comfortable with Blacks” increased by more than 33 percent after they had graduated. In other words, her data revealed that the sense of racial alienation felt by Black students at Princeton increased throughout their college life. 

The First Lady’s thesis underlines the much larger systemic inequalities that affirmative action not only fails to address but can further entrench. For sixty years, the political left has focused its political muscle on balancing college attendance between racial groups, and they’ve relied on the assumption that increased college attendance in minority communities will challenge the status quo of inequality. But the long-term solution to inequality will not depend on a policy that takes effect when minority students have already progressed through the majority of their educational life. It will depend on a solution that drastically improves access to educational and financial resources at the beginning of an individual’s intellectual development. 

Where Our Resources Should be Going 

It is often said that ideological revolution gets in the way of actual revolution, that winning the argument becomes more important than achieving its goal. In an era of hyperpolarization where consensus and compromise take second rank to division and demagoguery, politicians must close the gap between the moral theory and the human act. The terrifying, but sobering alternative is that the very disenfranchised groups who deserve the active support of their government remain locked in the systems of past failures because political elites will not abandon their moral narratives in exchange for measured, tolerable change. Therefore, to refocus the national resources on the sensible solutions to racial inequality throughout education and the economy will require the rarest of political commodities: humility in the face of failed policy as well as ideological sacrifice. 

Perhaps the most significant fallacy within the narrative of race-based affirmative action is that inequality is the invariable product of systemic racism that stems from oppression. It is not. Group outcomes are not only determined by structural barriers, but more substantially by the group’s capabilities that are cultivated by their access to resources. Minority groups, specifically the Black and Latino communities, would have no need for additional assistance in getting into colleges and universities if the government actively strove to provide them with equitable resources, not at the age of 18, but in every aspect of childhood development. By the age of 18, an individual’s personality traits and intellectual ability are largely solidified and immensely difficult to alter with social engineering. In fact, the Pew Research Center reports that “the financial resources available to children, and especially the income of their parents, are fundamental to the prospect of upward mobility” because of two key factors. First, greater financial stability provides children with access to resources like extracurricular activities, early-childhood cognitive development and a general safety net that protects children against distractions from their educational careers like poverty, malnutrition and increased health risks. Second, greater financial stability amongst individuals within a community empirically diminishes the popularity and incentives for gang and criminal activity. Furthermore, minority communities are also burdened with higher rates of single-parenthood, making it more relatively challenging for minority parents to provide their children with the full scope of resources more advantaged children receive. In other words, the phenomenon that college attendance is generally predictive of success in later life is better explained by the fact that most individuals who attend college have already developed highly competitive skill sets in early life. 

Most foundationally, increasing minority participation in secondary education begins by getting more disenfranchised individuals interested in applying to college in the first place. Regardless of how effective affirmative action policies ever become in the status quo, it is critical to recognize that these policies largely affect only the disenfranchised students who actually apply to college or university. Therefore, increasing both the economic standing of disenfranchised groups and the proportion of disadvantaged individuals with high-level degrees is incumbent on providing the early-life resources that encourage college participation. A significant proportion of minority students never even consider college as an option because they lack access to administrative officers and general college information that would help guide them through the complex process of applying to college. Similar data also unveils that higher-quality curriculums and extracurricular opportunities are a key factor driving students to pursue secondary education.  

Ultimately, rectifying long-term inequality requires a governmental commitment to arm disenfranchised communities with the equality of opportunity that will make them self-sufficient, not because the government is supporting them but because they are inherently as competent as more advantaged groups. As a starting point, the federal government should immediately reallocate and increase federal funds for a Medicaid expansion that would provide adequate health care and health coverage to disenfranchised communities such that they are no longer crippled by medical debt. Secondarily, the federal government should overhaul public education within disenfranchised communities so high-quality teachers and expansive extracurricular opportunities are accessible to all low-income minorities. More than the most powerful rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King’s vision rests upon the common commitment amongst all Americans to do what is hard. It has always been politically tactical to promote affirmative action: for little federal funding and a huge perceived impact, politicians can appear “on the side of minorities.” But two hundred years of inequality cannot be justifiably reconciled by glossing over the underlying and unequal distribution of resources that most directly contribute to an individual’s capabilities.   

Featured Image Source: NBC News 

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