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Column: Affirmative action hurts everyone involved

Image by Gloria HaAffirmative action prevents equal treatment.

As I was browsing NPR's website a week ago, I came across an article about a controversial bake sale held by a group of Republican students at the University of California at Berkeley.

The bake sale was intended to protest the proposed passage of Senate Bill 185, which would require public universities in California to consider race, ethnicity, gender, and national origin in application processes. Thus, the students had a different pricing system depending on the race and gender of the patron (for example, white patrons paid $2 for each baked good, while Hispanic patrons were charged $1), in order to draw attention to "reverse discrimination."

Berkeley students held a rally to protest the bake sale, and the Berkeley student senate condemned "the use of discrimination whether it is in satire or in seriousness by any student group." The administration of the university attempted to prevent the bake sale, saying it was inappropriate and offensive. The Republican students have also been subject to a nationwide backlash, including threats to their safety.

I cannot understand why there has been such an uproar against the bake sale. For one thing, the group of Republicans have a right to free speech. But setting aside the free speech debate, don't the Republican students have a legitimate point?

Though I have not always known it by this name, I have always hated affirmative action. A lot of this probably has to do with the fact I am a white male. I have grown up seeing people given special scholar designations based on race, or going to the GAMES summer camp (a U of I camp for girls interested in engineering). I resent that these groups are able to openly exclude white males from their groups, but an organization cannot so openly exclude minorities and women for fear of being branded as white-supremacist and chauvinistic.

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines affirmative action as "an action or policy favoring those who tend to suffer from discrimination." The key word here is "favoring." Basically, affirmative action is a form of state-approved discrimination. Affirmative action is most controversial in college admissions and employment opportunities, although it does occur in other places.

The basic reasoning behind affirmative action has never made sense to me. Since when has our constitution said that some people have more of a right to education and employment just because they are a minority? And how exactly is affirmative action supposed to lead to a color-blind society when colleges and employers have to take race into account?

The most legitimate defense of affirmative action I have heard is that affirmative action is needed provide opportunities for people who started with disadvantages, such as sub-par primary education. I agree that the playing field in education is not level and that something needs to be done to help the people who started with disadvantages. However, I think this is a case of treating the symptoms and not the cause. We would be better served to find those disadvantages and fix them, i.e. providing better primary education, rather than trying to remedy poor primary education by giving disadvantaged students access to better higher education than they are qualified for.

Furthermore, there is evidence that remedial affirmative action instead hurts the groups it is trying to help. A study conducted by Professor Richard Sander at UCLA Law School found that affirmative action in law schools actually lowers the number of black lawyers. Sander concludes that without affirmative action, fewer black students would go to law school but far fewer would drop out.

Another argument frequently used in defense of affirmative action is that it is necessary to preserve diversity. My objection to this is twofold. First, race and gender are neither the best nor the only ways to measure diversity. Class, ethnicity, and political views, among other things, should be kept in mind when considering diversity.

Additionally, while I consider diversity in general to be a good thing, I do not think an organization should be so focused on promoting diversity that it hurts the organization's ability to function, which is what the U.S. Supreme Court argued in the 2009 case Ricci vs. Destefano. In that case, a group of white firefighters successfully sued the city of New Haven, Connecticut, for discrimination. The city had thrown out a set of exams for promotions because a statistically low percentage of black firefighters had passed the test. The Supreme Court overturned the district court's argument that giving promotions based on the results of these exams would discriminate against the black firefighters because the city would have to promote a statistically larger number of white firefighters than black.

A final argument I have heard to justify affirmative action is that it exists to make up for all the wrongs committed since the creation of our country. The idea is that since minorities and women were oppressed by white males for centuries, we need to make up for that by giving them better admission and employment opportunities than white males. This attempt to justify affirmative action is based on the preposterous theory that two wrongs will make a right. Following this reasoning, it makes sense for us to allow black hate groups to form and lynch white people. Or to let Israel bomb Germany in payback for the Holocaust. Affirmative action as a form of revenge does not make sense morally.

If some of you out there are still not convinced that affirmative action should be abolished, consider this question: When do you plan to end affirmative action? If 100 years from now the balance of discrimination shifts against white males, should they be the recipients of affirmative action? I think affirmative action should be abolished so that we do not have to worry about questions like these.

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Sarah Yockey's picture

Strong opinions, but strong support

Not that I have a bias or anything, but I think this is a very solid article. It presents a strong opinion and supports it well against multiple objections.

After reading this article, I realized I hadn't made a clear, reasoned analysis of this issue!

I do think that sometimes affirmative action can help make a correction by forcing an institution to open up and be more inclusive when it might not otherwise do so. However, the question you raise about how long should affirmative action last or favor certain groups is quite valid. But how to evaluate when an institution should be exempt from affirmative action because it has become balanced in its policy? That's not an easy question to answer.

I guess I shouldn't start debating this topic with you at dinner, I think I might find myself in deep water well before dessert!

No photo provided

Good argument, but...

First of all, you made a good attempt at this issue. I had similar beliefs to you before I got into college. Looking back, I might have been wrong.

There are holes in your arguments no matter who writes about it. You see, your assumption in writing this entire article is that by using affirmative action to choose a group, we are compromising the quality of that group. Sure... we can rank all the applicants by a quantitative criteria (e.g. test scores), and just pick the top X applicants without regards to race, gender, etc. But will that truly make the best class? No. Diversity adds to the culture of a class. And by diversity, I am not talking about just race and gender, but the other things you mentioned: class, ethnicity, political views, etc. But had we just used the prior method of accepting the top X applicants by test scores, we will miss a lot of that diversity. Research shows that those top applicants will tend to be upper-income, white or asian, with a moderate political view. That doesn't seem very diverse to me, and honestly I don't think I want to go to college with only upper-income whites/asians. So if scores were all we cared about, our campus would be overwhelmingly socioeconomically similar. You mentioned that we should treat the cause and not the symptom. But is there really a way to target kids from disadvantaged backgrounds and give them a... better education? States are funded based on performance, so a school with students from low-income backgrounds will not receive as much funding. This type of legislation is much harder to change than affirmative action policies set by each school. So it's very difficult to target these issues at the roots, but I agree that more should be done in that area.

With that said, let me pose this question. Say Kid A had every opportunity to excel with not much else going on in his/her life, and Kid B had to take care of his/her family throughout high school or had to work a job. By your argument, we should simply take the kid with the higher score. Is that fair? Of course not. Can we say: "Oh we should've provided Kid B with a better primary education instead of offering affirmative action." Would that help? The answer is still no. So if Kid A and Kid B had the exact same test score, of course Kid B would be admitted because Kid B has been through more challenges in life and is more likely to succeed through the rigors of college. So my point is: If you grew up in an environment similar to Kid A's, you are EXPECTED to earn higher test scores. If you do well in school and get the top test scores, you are going to get into the top schools regardless of whether or not AA exists or not. If you do not get in, blame yourself for not making the best of the opportunities handed to you, not others for "taking your spot".

I will end my argument with excerpts from two articles written by an admissions officer at a top 10 university:

"[Caring only about test scores is] limiting because of the scope of issues and problems which people have experienced, and it's limiting because of the solutions which are likely to come to the minds of people. In short, it lends itself to group think and experential echo chambers. At that point, it's not a college as a socializing institution: it's a Great Gatsby garden party.

I think that most people intuitively understand this. I think that most people intuitively agree with the idea that the best function of an admissions office is to constitute a class of sufficiently prepared individuals who have a diversity of skills, experiences, knowledge, background, who can all learn from each other. That there is something important about considering things besides test scores and grades - things like teacher letters, essays, and backgrounds - in a holistic process.

...

In fact, in a certain sense you could say that our job, as an admissions office, is emphatically not to admit the "best students", but rather to admit those applicants who will become the best students.

...

This is what we mean when we say we value "diversity." It means we want a lot of different people, from a lot of different backgrounds, to come to college and to learn from each other.

One of the most important things about college is its role as a socializing institution. College is a place where you meet all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds and you learn from each other. It is, properly constituted, an environment which fosters intellectual, ideological, and social cross-pollination.

You need diversity - broadly defined - for college to matter. For college to be worth it. If all you want to do is learn stuff, you can go to the library and check out textbooks for free. If, on the other hand, you want to learn stuff, and to also learn from other people, and to become aware of problems which exist in the world which need solving, and learn to interact with people from different beliefs and backgrounds, then you need college. Or at least something so similar to college as to be effectively indistinguishable.

The point I am trying to make is this: when it comes to each applicant, we are not looking for merit or diversity. We are looking for merit and diversity."

Please take this time to read this. I think it might change your viewpoint. It certainly changed mine.

Luke Karmazin's picture

First, I hate the term

First, I hate the term reverse discrimination. Discrimination is not solely against minorities. When it is against those groups who have historically had power and influence it is still just discrimination.

In addition, affirmative action is actually quite logical. There is no genetic difference that would cause the gap in test scores that we see between different ethnic groups. Thus, we are left with one conclusion; that they are caused by society.

Since we are causing these gaps, we have to somehow break the cycle. The best way to do that is to insure adequate diversity in higher-level academics.

What you suggest frightens me. After the abolition of slavery, former-slaves were prevented from voting through the use of literacy tests, even though teaching a slave to read was illegal only a few years prior.

If test scores are low because of our actions and discriminatory behavior, it would be unfair to base admission on the results of this discrimination.

Chris Yoder's picture

Berkeley bake sale

The issue with the Berkeley bake sale saga was not so much the point the Republicans were making as it was the medium through which they made it. Selling cupcakes at prices set by a person's race trivializes an issue that merits serious discussion. Cal is unique in that affirmative action is banned, and the student body has a distinct makeup because of that. (43% of the student body in fall 2010 was Asian, compared to 33% white, 13% hispanic, 4% black.) Berkeley is a place that is sensitive to these issues; the Republican bake sale used a crude medium through which to make an otherwise valid point.

Chris Yoder (Berkeley student)