Reporter's Notebook

The End of Affirmative Action?
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Readers debate the merits of affirmative action following the December 2015 oral arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas (which ended in a 4-3 ruling upholding AA in June 2016). Contribute your own views via

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Is Affirmative Action Harming Minority Groups More Than It Helps?

A reader writes:

Any discussion about affirmative action is incomplete without a discussion of learning mismatch. The evidence is pretty clear at this point that mismatch is real and producing negative outcomes. Here is a post that discusses it in the context of Fisher.

That post is by Richard Sander, an economist and law professor at UCLA who has spent more than a decade studying the theory of “mismatch”—when the college application of a student who benefitted from affirmative action is significantly weaker than the average student’s at the same college, and thus the AA student would be a better “match” at a less competitive school because he or she is more likely to thrive—both in college and after graduation. Sander argues that a mismatch ends up disadvantaging an AA student even more than if he or she had originally attended a less prestigious college. From his post:

A second form of mismatch—“competition” mismatch—occurs when students abandon particular fields, or college itself, because of the practical and psychological effects of competing with better-prepared students.

John McWhorter, the linguistics professor at Columbia who should contribute to The Atlantic more often, invoked Sander in a piece for CNN yesterday on the Fisher case:

Now, at this point, many object that despite the mismatch, the students excel nevertheless. Here is the rub: the data is in, and in crucial ways and too often, they do not.

A reader in favor of affirmative action, Adrian Gallegos, introduces a new factor to our debate:

Just as a generalization, most minorities don’t have the social capital to take or gain advantages from nepotism as non-minorities do, either consciously or unconsciously. The new word for that is called networking. Networks take time to be established.

A reader who can attest to the power of networking is “an African American who attended a string of elite schools on scholarship from before college through grad school”:

Notwithstanding Justice Roberts’s comments about the benefits of diversity in physics class, the plaintiff herself in Fisher noted that what she was most upset about was the lost alumni connections regarding UT. This is why Justice Scalia’s comments were most disturbing to me, because even if minorities excel academically in “slower” schools, everyone knows the biggest benefits of college are enjoyed after graduation. Good schools will give you a degree and great schools will get you the degree and some connections. Minorities will never be able to affect institutional change within a bubble of such segregation.

Yes, students shouldn’t be pushed to attend schools they can’t graduate from, but I refuse to have others try to make me feel bad for my “lacking” academic performance in comparison to those who benefited from all kinds of tutors, special testing arrangements, medications, etc.  And, of course, we can get really deep and talk about the discriminatory history of the GI bill/ benefits, redlining, and other forms of institutional racism that existed well into the mid of the 20th century.

The African American reader at an Ivy League university who expressed some discomfort with affirmative action responds to the older Black reader who scoffed at her email:

I would start by saying that there is no way I can confirm my identity without disclosing my name, the college I went to, and a picture of my face. Since I happen to be applying to graduate schools, I’d rather not have my name attached to anything too controversial.

Instead of that, I would rather address some of the points made. Before I state anything, I’d like to give a nod to how much work was done to fight for the rights of black students to attend elite schools and have the opportunity to succeed. It is a legacy I am aware of and that I carry with me everyday.

One of the points the other reader made was that I was “shamed by AA.” I hope I didn’t come off that way. Affirmative action could not erase my achievements, and I believe “shame” is best used for when the person in question is actually guilty of wrongdoing. What I was trying to get across was that because my acceptance into an Ivy was seen as “being due to AA,” I felt that all my hard work had been overlooked or erased by my classmates. That also put extra pressure on me in college because I felt like I needed to prove that I belonged to be there, both to others and to myself.

I don’t think my sentiments are strange in the black community; but what does concern me is that whenever I or others voice our questions or struggles with AA, we are seen as “not real black people,” or like “Clarence Thomas.” I would hope that I could express my reservations about AA without being seen as some kind of Uncle Tom or boogeyman.

The following reader seems to agree with our Ivy League black reader, who suggests that if forms of non-racial, non-academic preferences are given to students all the time (e.g. legacy), then race-based affirmative action, however flawed, should be in the mix as well:

The question should be framed as one bigger than race: Should a school be allowed to consider its needs when building an incoming class? A school may desire to promote donations by giving a preference to donors, athletic reputation by giving preference to athletes, political currency by giving preference to the children of celebrities, or a more inclusive culture by giving preference to historically underrepresented classes. Should a school have this kind of discretion?

If so, it seems reasonable that a school should have it in all areas, including race, rather than disproportionately in those areas where discretion will tend to favor the wealthy.

Another reader suspects that I, or the black Ivy League reader, might have fabricated her email and its personal angst with affirmative action (for the record, her identity and Ivy status were confirmed prior to publication):

Why do white people always go get (or make up) some letter from some poor black student who says he or she was harmed or shamed by affirmative action? It’s such bullshit.

But I get it. As a black man whose undergrad years were right at the start of this—1969 to 1973—I’m used to white distraction and bullshit. I have never known a black student who said they were shamed by AA. Never. If you find one you should videotape them and put it up on Youtube.

The most compelling email I’ve seen in our discussion so far:

I am a black student who went to an Ivy League School for undergrad and now applying to graduate school. I am very split about affirmative action. On one hand, I hate it. I am never recognized for any of my accomplishments, never given the respect I feel is due because of affirmative action. When I got into my Ivy League undergrad (and unlike Abigail Fisher, I was actually in the top 10 percent of my class when I was applying to college). I took the second hardest course load in my school, had a 2250 SAT, and pretty much knocked the Verbal section out of the park by getting a cool 800.

But the same classmates I went to school with, spoke to, and beat in competitions grumbled behind my back: “It was affirmative action.” That cut me deeply in a way that I have never forgiven them.

This reader, Athena Kifah, isn’t so sure:

“In the weird constitutional language of affirmative action,” writes Garrett Epps in The Atlantic today, “no one is allowed to say what they really mean.”

Past judicial rulings have allowed for a holistic approach in college admissions based on the abstract idea that a diverse learning community is in the interest of all students. But this is not how many people view affirmative action; they see it as compensatory, a necessary step towards erasing systemic and historical disadvantages that have prevented minority individuals—in particular, Black and African-Americans and Native Americans—from achieving the same levels of monetary success as their White counterparts.

But while this idea of atoning for past sins through affirmative action is logical and appealing in theory, its implementation would be problematic. How does one determine which minorities have been systemically or historically disadvantaged? Would this exclude any Black individual who has immigrated to the U.S. since ... when? After slavery? After Jim Crow? After the Civil Rights era? Where do we draw the divide in our timeline to establish who has faced enough generations of discrimination to be owed something by the U.S.? And how would such a lineage, if specified, ever be proven? By this metric, virtually no new immigrants would meet the criteria to be a recipient of affirmative action.

I agree, as I venture most would, that increasing the range of perspectives within any learning space is beneficial to learning. But what does that mean? How is that being achieved? Is the highest metric of “diversity” strictly racial? Experiences within race can be extremely varied, in both White and non-White communities. There are ranges of privilege, wealth, and educational attainment within each community, metrics that also contribute significantly to what “diversity” a student might bring to the table.

I believe it is also worth noting, particularly in this political climate, that Middle Eastern and North African people are all census designated as White.

Richard Kahlenberg wrote a great piece for us yesterday about the future of affirmative action and “how a conservative decision at the Supreme Court could lead to a liberal outcome”—how striking down explicitly racial preferences in college admissions could lead, paradoxically, to even better results for racial and economic diversity. Here’s Kahlenberg:

My Century Foundation colleague Halley Potter has found that in the 10 states where racial affirmative action was dropped [because of state bans], eight states adopted class-based affirmative action programs; eight expanded financial-aid budgets; three rewarded students with the top GPA in each high school and downplayed standardized tests scores; and two adopted stronger programs to allow students to transfer from community colleges to four-year institutions. In three states, individual universities dropped legacy preferences for the children of alumni that tend to benefit white and wealthy students. Not only did these programs usually produce as much racial diversity as did racial preferences, they also jumpstarted social mobility, new evidence suggests.

The Supreme Court case at issue for Kahlenberg is Fisher v. University of Texas II, which had oral arguments today. The transcript was just released and is available here.

From a reader who is very sympathetic to the idea of affirmation action:

But the thing about affirmative action, above all else, is that it must be a temporary thing.