Affirmative action: a disservice to diversity

By Brad Polumbo

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(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 [email protected]