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September 20, 2017

Affirmative action: a disservice to diversity

(Shannon Broderick / Daily Collegian)

The Justice Department reignited the debate over affirmative action, when recent leaks revealed the launch of an investigation into what it considers “race-based discrimination” in higher education. For once, the Trump administration might be on to something.

Affirmative action policies emerged out of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. They allow schools to consider racial disadvantage as a mitigating factor in admissions, in an attempt to account for racial inequality.

The goal of affirmative action was simple: to promote campus diversity. But where do we find ourselves today? Without a doubt, minority representation has increased, including at the University of Massachusetts Amherst – which uses race-based admissions policies to pursue this goal.  Yet on today’s campuses, racial tensions run as high as ever.

In 2016, students at the University of North Dakota, Kansas State University and Quinnipiac University sparked outrage when they posted pictures in “blackface” on social media. A student at the University of Mississippi drew national attention by calling for the lynching of Black Lives Matter activists on Twitter.

At Evergreen College in Washington, white students were asked to leave campus for a “day of absence” in a stunt meant to explore issues of race. A professor who objected was assailed by students, decried as racist and forced to move his family into hiding for their safety. Violent threats posted on social media and 911 calls left the school on high-alert lockdown for days.

With affirmative action and countless other diversity-based policies in place nationwide, why haven’t college campuses made more progress? It’s simple—affirmative action, and policies like it, exacerbate racial division by differentiating along ethnic lines, rather than treating all students the same.

A Princeton study found that Asian-Americans needed to score 140 points higher on the SAT than white students to be admitted to a private school, while Black students could score 310 points lower and still get in. If schools distributed textbooks, laptops, professors or any other resource so unevenly, students would divide along those lines. This is no less true for acceptance letters.

But intelligence doesn’t correlate to skin color, and acceptance letters shouldn’t either. There’s an inherent condescension in setting the bar lower for students of color that undermines minority students. A drop in standards implies that they can’t be expected to have accomplished as much as their peers. A lower bar will always bring up an unfair question: Was a minority student admitted on their own merit, or just as a token diversity prop? Students of color don’t deserve to face increased scrutiny, but this tension will never subside until discrepancies in treatment do.

Proponents of affirmative action argue that we need to factor race into college admissions to address the racial imbalances that undoubtedly still exist in our society. These imbalances are unjust, but so is stereotyping people of color. Affirmative action does just that.

Affirmative action assigns life experiences to an applicant based on the box they check off on the census, viewing race in isolation in a way that ignores what opportunity or hardship a student has actually faced. Certain racial groups may be more economically disadvantaged than others, but that tells us little about any individual. If all you consider is race, a poor white student raised in rural Kansas would appear more privileged than a wealthy Black student from the suburbs of Washington, D.C.—regardless of which one actually had access to SAT prep courses, tutors or college advisers.

In 2017, race-blind admissions policies are just as capable of producing diverse college campuses. People of color have overcome many of the hurdles they faced in the 1960s. In 1965, Black people accounted for only about five percent of undergraduates. Now? A 2015 survey from the National Center on Education Statistics found that 70 percent of whites enter college immediately after high school—but so do 63 percent of African Americans. Minority students have proven that they don’t need a leg up to compete with their Caucasian counterparts.

The state of Texas is a perfect example of how race-blind admissions policies can still promote diversity. In 1997, a policy was implemented where the top 10 percent of each graduating high school class are automatically admitted to the state’s public universities, regardless of their race. Minority enrollment has increased dramatically.

The University of Texas at Austin has been an outspoken proponent of ethnicity-based admissions policies, while Texas A&M University prides itself on being race-neutral. Growth in Hispanic and Black enrollment at race-blind A&M outpaced UT-Austin from 2003 to 2015.

Still, there’s no denying the fact that at some elite universities, minorities are still underrepresented. But students of color already have lower graduation rates and a GPA gap separating them from their white counterparts. Pushing students of color into universities they wouldn’t otherwise get into will only widen the achievement gap these programs hope to close.

Students of color don’t need special treatment, or the unintended consequences that come with it. At some point in the past, affirmative action may have been necessary to promote campus diversity—but it isn’t today. The solution to racially charged campuses might just be to start treating everyone the same.

Bradley Polumbo is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at bpolumbo@umass.edu.

Comments
6 Responses to “Affirmative action: a disservice to diversity”
  1. SittingBull says:

    Spot on. This argument has been going on since before I went to UMASS, more than a generation now. But you don’t see this kind of common sense too often any more. Not that anyone these days will listen.

    https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/obituary-sad-passing-common-sense-ian-mutch

  2. david says:

    Affirmative Action is racial discrimination, period. Anyone supporting AA is supporting “Chinese Exclusion Act” 2.0. It is so disgusting and has no place in the 21st century.

    Proponents of AA always resort to 3 basic types of arguments:

    1. “We are morally superior”: Look, we care about other people. You guys are just selfish.
    2. “We are more enlightened”: Listen, we understand what is the greater good like diversity. You guys just don’t understand. We admit student “holistically”, i.e. “big picture”. You guys look only narrowly on grades.
    3. “You are stupid”: Hey, AA actually benefits you. You guys are simply too stupid to see it.

    But when it comes to fact (e.g. how ineffective AA is), data (e.g. minority graduation rate), principle (e.g. equality) or logic (e.g. meritocracy), proponents of AA can only resort to the tactics of emotion and demagogue.

  3. Bri says:

    I don’t think that you recognize the fact that students of color often times have a harder upbringing than white students. Not to say that economic and social inequality is 100% linked to race, but you need to understand that black and other minority students, from the moment they’re born, face discrimination at home and at school due to the color of their skin. Affirmative action (in 2017) seeks to get rid of the roadblocks that are in place socially and economically by allowing minority students to reach for their full potentials despite their pasts. Again, not all white students are born with silver spoons in their mouths, and not all minority students grew up disadvantaged. But affirmative action seeks to decrease some of the stigma and inequality of the outside world in order to achieve more equality for people post-graduation.

    Also, if universities are more concerned with closing the “achievement gap” than they are with creating better lives for their students, then they’re just as racist and oblivious as this op-ed.

  4. Robert Williams says:

    Dear Sir,

    After having read your article I have to address several problems with both the underlying assumptions the article makes, and the conclusions that result from these. Lets start with the assumptions:
    1. That race based tensions are “as high as ever.” Is an assumption made without factual support. First, I would like to know on what basis your assessment of this tension is made. Second, I would invite you to speak to the alumnae of the University of Massachusetts who were a part of the class of 1966, 67, and 68 and ask them what being a black student on campus back then was like.

    2.”With affirmative action and countless other diversity-based policies in place nationwide, why haven’t college campuses made more progress?” You cannot divorce college campuses from the world they exist in. We live in a very racist nation. Students are raced as a product of their socialization and that process does not evaporate upon matriculation to a school of higher education. However, students who do come from primarily white communities often find their overt racism harshly critiqued on college campuses. Human beings react to critiques of ideology often in the same manner with which they respond to assaults upon their person. They either freeze, flee, or attack. This does not mean we have to stop critiquing embedded racist ideologies, it means we have to do it in a way that helps them deconstruct their own inherent biases.

    3. SAT scores. You cited one study on SAT differential, but failed to bring in study after study that demonstrates racial bias in SAT testing. These biases have never been acknowledged, nor addressed by the College Board, so many admissions boards have found it helpful to do the best they can and scale the exam results. This is not giving someone a leg up; it is a very imperfect method of addressing a fundamental flaw in standardized test that has a near monopoly on college board exams.

    4. The Texas A&M v UT comparison. There are several major differences that separate Texas A&M with TAMU. TAMU offers a significantly cheaper out of state tuition, it is much larger, and has a more robust financial aid program.

    5. The issue of comparing graduation rate and GPA of black and white students is a false equivalence. Students of color more often have to work in college to support themselves, are more often first generation students, are more likely to come from impoverished backgrounds, and have to deal with racist environments at primarily white institutions. Thus, these students are dealing with a host of problems and challenges that their white counterparts do not in most cases.

    6. Affirmative action was not created to end racism on campuses. The origin of affirmative action was also not feel good liberalism. It was a response to the urban rebellions of the 1960’s. Liberals believed they could use the college campus to solve the nation’s race problem by creating a more robust black middle class that would have an economic interest in maintaining the American capitalism. However, this magic bullet ignored massive structural inequalities that exist at all levels of private and public investment that have contributed to communities of color living in endemic poverty for generations. The problem with affirmative action is that is was not coupled with a comprehensive program of investment in working class communities of color.

    7. Historically, the largest beneficiaries of Affirmative Action have been white women, not people of color.

    Your conclusion:
    Your answer, to end affirmative action admissions, would simply return America to status quo ante- the Civil Rights Movement without addressing the fundamental problems that the program was created to address. I agree that it is certainly insufficient to end racism in America. The answer is not to end the program, it is continue to work and struggle until it is no longer necessary. Until, in America, all people have an equitable share of the wealth of this country.

    Sincerely,

    Robert F. Williams
    Ph.D. Candidate
    The WEB DuBois Department of Afro-American Studies

  5. Race based affirmative action is the new discriminatory policy against minority groups like Asian American students. Not only it is a disservice to diversity and true racial equality but also morally corrupt and a lazy way of social engineering. Please visit Asian American Against Affirmative Action facebook page to learn more. https://www.facebook.com/AgainstAA/

  6. Karl says:

    Bri,
    The author made decidedly anti-racist statements and made compelling cases for the fact that affirmative action doesn’t seem to be reaching its expressed goals, and you lazily write it off as “oblivious and racist”. Instead of attempting to reach a modicum of self-awareness, the Regressive Left continues to double down on its religious dogma of the High Church of Social Justice. All you offered were the same boring progressive platitudes rather than established facts. You guys are losing and you don’t even know it. Affirmative Action is a failed experiment, period.

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