By Pasha Saidi
Recently, President Donald Trump decided to reverse the Obama-era Affirmative Action policy, which was to have universities consider race when admitting an applicant. Instead, the Trump administration is going back to Bush-era policies, regarding university acceptance as ideally “race-neutral”. Now, race-based admissions do have an ugly side. There is an investigation from the Department of Justice and a 2014 lawsuit claiming that Harvard University actively discriminates against Asian American applicants. But it’s not just one university purposely hurting qualified applicants chances of getting into a good school simply because they’re Asian--enough schools have shown bias towards Asian-Americans that the percentage of Asian-Americans who supported Affirmative Action went from 78% in 2012 to 41% in 2016. So this all lends itself to one big question: was Trump’s reversal of Obama’s policy better or worse for our education system? To put it simply, no: although Affirmative Action can negatively impact talented kids and sometimes even the supposed beneficiaries, it is still needed to ensure that, in a diverse society like the United States, every student gets a chance to study and get their dream job as long as they work hard, and not be held back just because of their race. Long story short, Affirmative Action is a necessary evil.
First, it is imperative to examine the cons of Affirmative Action. Many critics of Affirmative Action point out that the Asian percentage of the student body at any given university would be staggeringly high without this policy. For example, Harvard would have had 43% of its student body be comprised of Eastern Asians (not the Hmong who are more commonly known as Southeast Asians). It can be argued that these 43% of students would be vastly outperforming their counterparts in the application process. In all honesty, they are having a huge SAT score gap even with the 2nd highest group: Whites. However, Eastern Asians are stereotyped as the “Model Minority” for a reason, as they oftentimes have better access to high quality K-12 education than other minorities. As part of the “Model Minority” stereotype, Asians are made out to be perfect and untouchable especially regarding their academic skills. In reality Asian-Americans are obviously not perfect and many Asian-Americans don’t live up to the near impossible “Model Minority” theory. However the stereotype still exists and ironically, an overzealous view on Asian-American leaves negative impacts on the community. “Model Minority” thinking leads to the truth that Asian-Americans do endure racism and discrimination like normal human beings. This idea is so widely believed that the community is not included in Affirmative Action, leading to Asian-Americans facing a drawback in accepted college applications through Affirmative Action. Asian-Americans should be 43% of the students in Harvard and universities around the world, but the
“Model Minority” theory brings the percentage far lower. That 43% is overshadowing other bright students that are at a disadvantage, whether it be awful school systems or poor neighborhoods. Nonetheless, Asian-Americans are outperforming their counterparts, and could ideally be getting rewarded for it. As Harvard’s own poll suggests, racial inequality in student bodies does occur in universities where race-based admissions are not in place.
However, it is for all the right reasons, in a textbook example of “mismatch.” In California, a law called Proposition 209 was passed in 1998 that outright banned racial preferences during admission. Now, it might have been anticipated that the Asian American and White population would surge and effectively control Californian universities. Many critics of Proposition 209 predicted Blacks and Latinos completely disappearing from universities such as UC Berkeley. The Black and Latino population at UCLA did drop for a short period of time (50% drop in Black Freshmen and 25% drop for Latino Freshmen). However, it was not exceptional students being forced out due to admissions officers having the ability to stick to some racial prejudice and choose whites; instead, what happened was that Blacks and Latinos that could truly handle studying at prestigious universities including UCLA stayed. The drop was so staggering due to poor performance from students admitted through Affirmative Action. Many students who were admitted to top tier universities through Affirmative Action alone couldn’t handle the rigor and were failing. To make UCLA or any other university in the state diverse, Blacks and Latinos were enrolled, even if they were a much better fit at a less prestigious university. To illustrate this, even though there was a huge drop in black and Latino students after Proposition 209 was passed, the number of blacks and Latinos who physically passed and got their degree was the same between the last 5 years of Affirmative Action in California and the first 5 years of Proposition 209 (when the drop of minority students was the greatest). On top of that, after Proposition 209, blacks and Latinos were no longer being set up for failure by being plopped directly into amazing universities like UCLA. They would go to a lower tier university and then if they could excel there and prove themselves, they could easily transfer to UCLA, ensuring they be successful throughout their higher educational career, instead of dropping out of UCLA from the start, having to live with the knowledge they failed (which can prevent them from heading back to college--in fact, a relative of mine became clinically depressed after dropping out of college to the point where he refused to go back and now can do nothing better than work as a cashier) and have to change their academic plans out of nowhere.
Clearly, ridding our collegiate system of race-focused admissions was a huge success, but regarding flaws of keeping Affirmative Action in place, it simply doesn’t help the people who need it the most, poor yet still academically gifted students. According to the book The Shape of the River, “86 percent of African American students at selective colleges are middle or upper-class—and the whites are even wealthier.” On top of that, “being an underrepresented minority increases one’s chances of being admitted to a selective college by 28 percentage points, but being low income provides no positive boost. Nationally, 41 percent of undergraduate students had family incomes low enough to be eligible for Pell Grants in 2011-12, yet at selective colleges the proportion is usually much lower. At the University of Virginia and Duke University, to take two examples, only 13 percent of students are Pell eligible.” Ideally Affirmative Action should be leveling the playing ground, allowing low income students the opportunity to not be bogged down by the rundown school they went to or the ghetto they lived in, but rather, be able to go to a prestigious university if they are gifted. On the contrary, the novel’s findings reiterate that colleges are completely blindsiding this issue by not accepting kids of low socioeconomic status. Creating a level playing ground between the rich, middle-class, and poor is inherently more important than having diversity, if that diversity is simply between a pool of mainly rich students. Sadly, with a for-profit higher education system, colleges will naturally hunt out kids who are rich enough to fill their pockets with donations. In a system such as the one in Scandinavia, potential pupils would not be hunted down based on how much money they can pour into the college’s bank account, but rather based on skill, making a pick for a talented low income student over a nearly equally talented high income student easier. Yes, we would have to completely change our education system dramatically to make it easier for low income applicants to get into superb colleges, but the fact of the matter is that Affirmative Action must not masquerade as the champion of the poor applicant when it cannot do one bit to stop the for-profit disease from infecting our universities. All in all, Affirmative Action doesn’t always help to equalize the socioeconomic playing field and education systems have operated just fine without it, but as will be explained below leveling the playing field racially is still immensely crucial.
Now, rebuttal time! Even with all these aforementioned downsides to Affirmative Action, it is ultimately needed to make sure even people of disadvantaged, low-income communities still have the chance to receive a wonderful education. Regarding the lawsuit against Harvard, considering race is legal as long as a “majority of students” aren’t negatively impacted. So although the DOJ is indeed knocking on Harvard’s door, it is the exception. Even though a handful of Whites and Asians may feel as if Affirmative Action took away their opportunity to go to an Ivy League school, ultimately, the pros outweigh the cons. The advantage given to socioeconomically hindered students outweighs the decrease in accepted white and Eastern Asian applications. Due to this, a private university acknowledging that, say, a Latino applicant is incredibly bright and has the potential to do great, but has an unsatisfactory SAT scoresolely because they went to a low quality high school in a poor neighborhood still deserves to attend the university due to the consequences of their socio-economic status is one hundred percent okay. People who cannot get into their dream school and are not a minority can always act out and claim that a black or a Latino applicant took their place and try to get rid of the system that “enabled” that to happen (aka Affirmative Action), but ultimately, universities deserve to have a more diverse student body than just whites and non-Hmong Asian Americans. Without Affirmative Action, a group that is only 5.6% of the American population would be a WAY more dominating force at American Universities. For example, at UC Berkeley due to Proposition 209 the Asian population is 28% in 2018 and if Harvard had no Affirmative Action policy, the percent of Asians would be 43%. Although Asians have statistically higher SAT scores than whites, blacks, and Latinos on average, it doesn’t hurt to let disadvantaged minorities have a chance to succeed. And finally, although in California Proposition 209 may be working swimmingly (as mentioned previously, still diverse, but only minorities that can actually succeed at the schools they’re going to are being admitted) in California, trying to get rid of Affirmative Action and race-based admissions in the rest of the country is a huge risk. California took a shot in the dark and it paid off, but with floods of lawsuits in the 50s (right before JFK made his executive order proclaiming affirmative action be used to prevent racial bias) by Jews who were being discriminated against through the admissions process and 12 premier universities including Ivy League schools such as Princeton and Yale backing Harvard in its suit and endorsing race-based admissions, it is clear that taking a big step away from Affirmative Action is inherently dangerous.
Although Affirmative Action for university admissions does have major flaws such as lowering the acceptance of the most qualified applicants and having a bias towards taking in solely those students who are rich enough to line the universities’ pockets, Affirmative Action ensures that nobody gets their right to work hard and pursue the American Dream solely because the melanin in their skin looks one way instead of the other. The general view of American society towards racial prejudices has drastically improved since the 1960s, however we aren’t quite at locking arms and singing Kumbaya. We still need a strong racial neutralizer in our college admissions program because as Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in the Grutter vs Bollinger case that allowed the University of Michigan to utilize race preference in admissions, "We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today,". Justice O’Connor wrote that 15 years ago, so there is still time to go, which means that for now, Affirmative Action is a necessary evil and the better of two evils that must stay in the American college admissions system.