What they intended to happen, and what really happens.
When my little sister was nearing the end of high school, her years of steadfast effort had resulted in quite the portfolio for your typical college applicant. She touted a 4.0 non-weighted GPA, a 2200+ SAT score, 5’s on all 7 of her AP tests, nominations for the highly acclaimed Girl’s State program as well as a lesser known but equally laudable exchange program for German-learning students, and extracurricular activities abound.
Like any well-to-do high school student graduating top of her class, she applied to a subset of top elite universities as her realistic first choice schools, separate from a smaller subset of reach dream schools. The academic odds were in her favor. Yet, when college acceptance letters finished coming through in the mail, she ultimately did not get into any of her first choice picks, despite being a desirable candidate. She was heartbroken, and it just didn’t make any sense.
Another relevant fact to top off this opening anecdote? She’s Asian-American.
Now that I’ve brought race into the picture, let’s talk about affirmative action.
The Effects of Affirmative Action
One of the reasons affirmative action in higher education was introduced was to increase the presence of racial minority demographics in college campuses in America. In simple terms, universities implement the practice by establishing admission quotas that are to be filled exclusively by nonwhite applicants. At first glance, the impetus behind affirmative action policies seem progressive and well meaning. What occurs as a result of such policies, however, shows otherwise.
A 2005 Princeton study found that amongst college applicants from minority groups in elite universities that exercise affirmative action, Asians essentially get docked the equivalent of 50 SAT points from their applications while their minority African American and Hispanic counterparts get boosted 230 and 185 SAT points, respectively. White applicants? Their SAT scores remain unaffected. Let’s assume for the purposes of this article that this study is an accurate reflection of how affirmative action policies are ultimately realized when put to practice. Is this a just outcome? I’d argue not.
In fact, there’s a name for the injustice that’s happening here and it’s nothing new: it’s called “race-norming,” the practice of adjusting scores on standardized tests between racial groups according to different curves. Developed in the early 1980’s by the Department of Labor, race-norming was actually outright banned in the early 1990’s due to the Civil Rights Act of 1991.
If colleges are exercising practices that result in outcomes that mimic race-norming, then something is definitely not right with the way affirmative action as a concept is executed. It doesn’t matter whether these institutions are intending to do anything illegal or not; their methods are wrong by virtue of their results being illegal.
In Defense of Asians and Other Minorities
While the goals inherent in affirmative action in colleges are obviously well intentioned, as severely disenfranchised groups like African Americans and Hispanics do deserve a fair chance at higher education given their fundamental socioeconomic disadvantages, it is simply unjust to do so at the expense of an entirely different minority group to achieve these ends. Because isn’t discrimination against minorities the exact issue we are trying to combat here?
Furthermore, the practice of setting aside one predetermined percentage of spots for multiple minority races implies that, as a set, minorities are The Others — the outgroup that doesn’t belong.
Especially since these predetermined slots comprise less than half the student body in most elite universities, and are meant to accommodate all minority types, leaving the remaining majority slots to be filled by White applicants.
As a result, this cements the idea that minorities will always be minorities, and deserve less of the American pie. No matter how you cut it, the way affirmative action is currently practiced will deprive countless qualified Asians of their higher educational dreams and ideal formative years — dreams they’ve invested countless years in trying to achieve. And had they just so happened to have been born a member of the majority American race, they probably would’ve achieved them.
In terms of other minority groups, the increased admission rates that African American and Hispanic applicants encounter due to affirmative action policies are arguably insufficient when taking history into account, for both groups remain in the very bottom percentiles when it comes to undergraduate admission statistics in top universities. What I mean is, the magnitude of the perceived uptick in admissions isn’t nearly enough to even begin to rectify the racial injustices these groups have had to endure — both from the past and in the present.
So while African Americans and Hispanics continue to receive inadequate reparations from affirmative action, Asians continue to be restrained and rejected in a discriminatory manner.
1) If intelligence is a physical manifestation (i.e., brain composition or genetic makeup), then there might be some difference between Asians and other groups in like brain-size or something.
Although this counterargument should be an obvious non-starter, let me make clear that there are absolutely zero reputable studies to suggest any sort of intrinsic advantages to being born Asian as opposed to other races that should subject Asians to academic discrimination in higher education. There’s a great article written by biological anthropologist Greg Laden that disputes claims that Asians carry intrinsic genetic advantages in terms of intelligence and IQ.
2) It’s okay to favor White applicants because most of America is White.
In elite universities like (but not limited to) Harvard and Yale, the majority of attending students have always been and continue to be White. Even in present-day time, the number of White enrollees in a student body can reach a staggering 74% (lookin’ at you Notre Dame). Some argue in defense of these disparate numbers, saying it’s okay to favor White applicants over Asian applicants because the majority of America is White. But the idea that universities should serve as a microcosm of present-day America and maintain a similar demographic ratio on campus is rife with issues of suppressed racism.
For one, the notion implies that things are a-okay just the way they are in America right now — that we’ve already achieved the pinnacle of social equality that our Founding Fathers dreamed of. The ultimate melting pot, so to speak. But clearly, we haven’t, and it would be completely remiss for anyone to believe that it is fair to maintain a majority of White students on campus by default, while turning away equally qualified Asian applicants and confining all minority races within a predefined quota.
Final Thoughts on Affirmative Action
While the intentions are sound, there’s got to be a better way.
As an Asian American, it breaks my heart to see countless “shoo-in” friends get rejected from their dream schools, simply because of something that was completely out of their control (i.e., race at birth).
Affirmative action merely treats the symptoms rather than the disease that is America’s flawed education system and broad socioeconomic makeup. Yet, it is still transparently practiced to a large degree in a staggering number of colleges and universities. And I hate to be the bearer of both opinion and no concrete solution, but at this point, I have nothing profound to propose in terms of the latter. Perhaps more equality, care, and better public policy should take place at more fundamental levels in education such as preschool and elementary school, when opportunities to positively influence the future lives of marginalized children are plentiful.
Instead of reconfiguring college demographics in an ad hoc manner, earlier influences in education could be the key to a more socially just future in America.
What are your thoughts on affirmative action, dear readers?
Editor’s note: At the end of the last month, the Young Conservatives at the University of Texas held an anti-affirmative action bake sale, which sparked an online backlash. Asians males were charged $1.50 for baked goods whilst ‘natives’ were charged nothing.