Is Affirmative Action Really the Best Way to Reverse Inequality?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

That’s the general question addressed by our latest round of reader emails on the subject, who are taking a step back from the more specific areas we’ve tackled so far, such as mismatch theory, the discrimination against high-achieving Asian-Americans, and the stigma felt by some recipients or perceived recipients of affirmative action. This reader criticizes the policy:

Any time one chooses on the basis of politics rather than qualifications, you are reducing efficiency as well as angering the losers. If we reward people based on ability, it both motivates ability and reduces the value of being a victim. So long as we allow people to declare themselves victim and benefit from it, we will face an increasingly fragmented society as people try to place themselves in a politically benefited group to gain advantages.  

This reader has a more measured take:

I worked at UCLA in 1996 when Californians were debating, and ultimately passed, Proposition 209. The law banned consideration of race, sex, or ethnicity from being considered in public employment, contracting, or education. It has since been upheld after numerous court challenges.

Prop 209 debates dominated campus at the time. I will never forget being at a university “town hall” where the director of the affirmative action program was attempting to explain what AA was and why it should remain.

I raised my hand and asked, “How does the federal government measure compliance with affirmative action?” After having just ended a long explanation of how it was not a “quota system,” he dodged. “Well, I’ll tell you what, when an institution is not in compliance, they sure get into a heck of a lot of trouble, as we’ve recently seen” (referring to a recent citation of UC San Diego for non-compliance).   

His dodge really explained the unspoken reality of AA: It is about getting minorities placed in employment and education by hook or crook. It is not, as it theoretically goes, only about choosing the minority when up against an equally-qualified white person.

However well-intentioned and even perhaps necessary, it is in fact about counting by race, something which should give us pause even if we see its numerous benefits.  

This reader, on the other hand, doesn’t see what the big deal is:

To be honest, I’ve never particularly understood why affirmative action is so controversial. I think there are meaningful arguments about whether it should be based on race or socio-economic class, especially if many of the benefits are accruing to middle and upper-class African Americans, but that’s a matter of implementation more than existence.

First off, to deny that African Americans have been systematically and uniquely disadvantaged throughout history is silly. The Civil Rights Act wasn’t until 1964, and society doesn’t suddenly transform the minute a law is enacted. But, even if you go back further, black families were systematically split up and slaves were purposefully denied an education during slavery. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one of the books with a rightful claim to “Great American Novel” status, centers on Jim running away from his “Master” because she broke her promise not to split up his family. He runs away and joins Huck to escape to the North with the primary goal of making enough money to buy back his family (Django Unchained is a more contemporary story with the same theme).  

In addition, central to most slave narratives is some trickery or happenstance that allowed them unlikely access to education. Frederick Douglass bribed poor neighborhood white kids with bread in exchange for lessons on reading, which was highly frowned upon. He wrote, “I
 me, but 

But, honestly, even if that weren’t the case, I’m not certain that I see much difference between affirmative action and any other need-based scholarship, many of which are awarded by race, gender, or socio-economic status. Sure, if I found out I was the theoretical “person whose spot was given to someone less qualified based on affirmative action,” I might be personally miffed, but the odds of that are highly unlikely.

This reader wants a more nuanced approach when implementing AA:

Rather than argue about whether it’s permissible or useful to use race in admission criteria, it would be a good idea to go directly to indicators of social disadvantage. Students who do well in challenging situations deserve credit for that. Rather than “race” (whatever that is), look directly at household income, parents’ educational level, various indicators of school quality, crime rates for the student’s home neighborhood.

The result would, of course, include a lot more students of color, and also a lot more disadvantaged white students. The biggest problem is that it would reduce the advantage of privileged students. The well-off would howl. A student who attended a good school, wasn’t (involuntarily) hungry, got tutoring and other help as needed, and did well in school wouldn’t get the benefit of pretending that all students had those advantages.

Using direct measures of social disadvantage is so obvious that it's hard to believe admissions officials haven’t thought of it. It’s also hard to believe that the reason for not even trying it is the expected opposition of the privileged. It’s easier to argue about race than to confront entrenched privilege.

One more reader for now:

Everyone watching these issues from the sidelines gets up in arms and takes one side or the other. As a result, we naturally frame the issue as underprivileged groups against colleges when we should actually frame it as one unified team against entrenched, systemic disadvantage.

All of those discussing here are basically looking for the same thing: We want everyone to get a fair shot. So how do we reduce the rate of mismatch? Better high schools for the disadvantaged? Perhaps, but we’ve struggled with issue since well before Brown vs Board of Education. Free tutoring during the year? Maybe, but considering the isolating effects of effectively singling out students for remedial education combined with the likely burden of working to pay their way through college, I doubt the merits of this option.

Why not take advantage of secondary educational systems already in place around the country? Nearly every major university has community colleges in close vicinity. Why not work to allocate money to these oft-ignored and neglected environments and create “equality pipelines” that could bring intelligent and hardworking individuals up to speed? It’s a ready-made vehicle for advancement that just needs to be tweaked to run effectively.

The reality of the situation is that in order to reduce mismatch, a significant time commitment is needed. Creating a place designed specifically for this purpose is an active step against entrenched advantage while accepting the realities required in order to receive a high-level education. On average, you can’t bring everyone up to speed without a significant time and energy commitment. Acknowledging this undeniable reality is the first step to developing realistic solutions to universal problems regarding equality, disadvantage, and academic accomplishment. Ignoring the facts of obtaining a quality education does everyone a disservice.  

P.S. The Atlantic is my favorite venue for online intellectual thought. I appreciate the forum you guys provide for discussion. If you guys post this can you make sure my name is not attached? I work in an environment where I need to remain apolitical.

Yep, all emails are posted anonymously in Notes unless a reader gives us permission otherwise. And thanks to everyone taking the time and effort to write in over this controversial, ongoing issue. Still more of your emails to come. Update with another one right now, from a long-time reader:

Here are the assumptions that I see in the emails you posted that shouldn't go without examination:

1) That the objective of a university’s admissions process is to reward 18 year olds who have worked hard and deserve a spot on their campus, rather than to assemble a student body that fits its own needs, or, in the case of public institutions, fulfill its obligation to produce benefits (economic or societal) for the taxpayers of the state that supports it.

2) That the selectivity of an institution relates to the difficulty of its classes. (Community college courses are not primarily remedial versions of “real” college. They’re often the same material provided without the big ticket opportunities or the whole-life support system of a prestigious residential college and classmates who are all already high achievers. Students who do well enough to transfer probably would have done well if they had been admitted in the first place.)