Looking Beyond Affirmative Action

Readers suggest that simply continuing—or ending—it are not the only options.

College students on campus
Stefani Reynolds / Bloomberg / Getty; The Atlantic

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Earlier this week, I asked for your thoughts on racial preferences in college admissions. For context, Pew found in 2019 that “most Americans (73%) say colleges and universities should not consider race or ethnicity when making decisions about student admissions. Just 7% say race should be a major factor in college admissions, while 19% say it should be a minor factor.”

Daniel defends affirmative action on utilitarian grounds:

Steps to bring minority representation in higher ed closer to the general population have fairness and constitutional issues. But if we had not had them the last 30 years, we would have a much more unjust society and much more racial enmity. The aggregate good done for minority applicants far exceeds the aggregate harm done to white applicants.  

L.H. objects to racial preferences:

From my perspective as a well-off, well-educated member of a stereotypically “disadvantaged” minority: What bugs me most is the premise that being a member of a racial minority automatically puts you at a disadvantage that you need special treatment to overcome. It might be true that a random Black- or Hispanic-identifying applicant, let’s say, is more likely to live in poverty or be a first-generation college student.

But admissions officers aren’t making decisions about racial composites; they’re admitting individuals whose experiences diverge immensely from the stereotypical narrative of their race.

Among “Hispanics” in particular, you might see Central American immigrants who’ve endured extensive hardships and disruptions to their education, native New Mexicans whose families have lived and prospered in the Southwest since the region was a Spanish colony, second-or-third generation Cuban-Americans (like myself) descended from the island’s educated elite, who had the resources and stateside connections to escape the Castro regime, and plenty of perfectly average middle-class people who grew up in the suburbs with 2.2 siblings and whose parents have Some College Education.

I understand the impulse behind affirmative action—elite schools feel good about themselves for putting a thumb on the scale for children of migrant farmworkers. But I’m just as Hispanic as those folks, and both my maternal grandparents have doctoral degrees. It makes no sense for an admissions policy to give us the same special treatment because we’d check the same box (out of maybe five or six options) on the “race” section of an application. Whether or not you think affirmative action is morally justified, applying it on the basis of race alone is both ludicrous and only superficially equitable.

Mark believes that meritocracy is “the fundamental ingredient of a successful culture” and that racial preferences and legacy admissions in higher education both undermine it, because when people from an upper-class background get better treatment due to their skin color or where their parents went to college, “that is the antithesis of equality.” He adds, “I would support affirmative action using a student’s economic background. In today’s America, money equals power.”

Jim argues that we wouldn’t need racial preferences if we ended capitalism:

The intention of Affirmative Action, as I interpret, is to correct systemic imbalances. Imbalance can be thought of as a deficit incurred by the exercise of advantage by one entity over another. By claiming the advantage, the deficit is immediately created for the disadvantaged one, and a debt simultaneously burdens the other, the metaphysical cost of advantage. The “privileged” debtor SHOULD recognize the necessity of clearing the debt ASAP, as it is compounding, just as the inevitable depreciation of the creditor’s opportunity is compounding. (In the US, of course, we are quite comfortable with the concept of bankruptcy, meaning it’s unremarkable that we would shrug off all types of debts by allowing someone else to bear the cost of our advantage.)

When we choose NOT to exercise an advantage that we otherwise could, we leave the other party in full possession of their resources, free to exercise their natural potential. And it leaves the one with the unexercised advantage with credit, not a debit. Win-Win. The profit motive is the primary hindrance to the establishment of systems and attitudes that would create such an indifference toward advantage. It rewards competition, dominance, and endless accumulation and consumption, to the impoverishment of all parties.

A principle that favors the protection and nurture of the populace enables healing and harmony that will be genuine and long-lasting. This principle, if regarded, would reveal the path to creating attitudes and therefore systems that make corrective policies increasingly unnecessary or obsolete because the relevant parties will be accruing benefits.

Rob rejects the premise that past discrimination justifies present discrimination as a matter of fairness:

We’ve had race-conscious college admission policies for centuries, they just preferred white people (particularly male, Protestant ones) over Blacks, Asians, and pretty much all non-WASPs. This of course is now universally and correctly held to be wrong and unfair.

So what should be done?

Well, if you think “fair” means “now I get MY turn to put my thumb on the scales,” then race-conscious admissions are fine, but you have to admit that it’s simply a case of switching who’s being unfair to whom. Alternatively, you may think that “fair” means equality of outcomes (i.e., the same percentage distribution of race in each college class, job role, political office as in the population). But because there can be other reasons for inequality of outcome besides racial discrimination, outcomes should not be viewed as an end in themselves but instead as an INDICATOR of possible unfairness.

Treating some people unfairly today because other people were treated unfairly in the past tortures the definition of fairness beyond all sense and reason. It’s old-fashioned, but it’s hard to improve on fairness defined as equality of opportunity and absence of discrimination.

Jack believes that ties should go to the marginalized but objects to equating race and marginalization:

I understand and empathize with the goals of affirmative action programs as they aim to give underprivileged people a “foot in the door.” All else equal, the candidate who had to work harder to get to that point deserves the spot. Judging applicants based on their class and economic status seems like the way to go as it factors in the quality of public schools and other factors which disproportionately hurt poorer Americans. I want a poorer White person from rural West Virginia to have a similar “advantage” at getting into college as I do a poorer Black person from southern D.C. The last few years we’ve had somewhat of a racial upheaval in the U.S., bringing treatment of people based on race to the forefront. This may be a necessary step in finally overcoming issues pertaining to race, but I don’t think that we need to take a step backwards in looking at school admissions in a way that has similarities to the era of segregation.

Svetlana believes that she benefited from affirmative action and supports it:

When I was applying to college, I was a newly arrived immigrant and I “milked” my personal story for all it was worth. My SATs were average though my grades were excellent.  

But for my unusual demographic profile, I would not have gotten into a highly selective college. I hope the admissions officer [genuinely] asked whether I would thrive there and answered in the affirmative. And I did thrive. I therefore have no problem with affirmative action when, all things being equal, an underrepresented minority—color, ethnic, gender, economic—gets the thumb on the scale. Given scarcity of spots, SOMETHING has to break the tie because there are so many essentially equally qualified candidates.   

Blake opposes it and argues that racial preferences cause undeserved stigma to some beneficiaries, recalling a brilliant Black prep-school classmate who was admitted to Princeton but wouldn’t have needed racial preferences in the admissions process. “He graduated a Harvard MD,” he writes, “and unfortunately will have to fight qualification stigma and that stinks. That is an issue mostly ignored by equity proponents but emotionally penalizes the most undeserving of such treatment.”

Thank you for all of your responses, and see you next week.