Column | Dec. 3

The reasoning behind affirmative action

On Oct. 15, the Supreme Court took up the issue of affirmative action in the case Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, which attempted to decide whether the state of Michigan violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause when it amended its state constitution to ban affirmative-action programs in its universities and in the public sector. What has come to be known as the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative prohibits the use of racial, ethnic or sex-based preferential treatment in admissions considerations for public educational institutions, government contracting and public employment, thereby effectively prohibiting affirmative-action programs in any of Michigan’s public institutions. This brings to light the decades-old questions regarding the constitutionality of affirmative action. Is race-based affirmative action justifiable? Ought affirmative action be based on socioeconomic status? Should affirmative action be legal at all?

To answer these questions, it is important to recognize the reasons that affirmative action exists in the first place. What I believe to be the primary and the only constitutionally sound reason is that having different sets of criteria for different segments of the population bolsters diversity. Diversity benefits members of a university community by giving more people exposure to a greater variation of human experiences and outlooks. Different types of people with different experiences have different outlooks on the world. That is a healthy dynamic to have in a setting where the goal is to understand humanity better and cleave closer to truth. Affirmative action is especially relevant in the university setting, where schools have fixed numbers of admitted freshmen and admission is a zero-sum game. If one student takes a spot, there is one less spot for everyone else. If grades and test scores are the sole metric for measuring success across all segments of society, there will be more homogeneous admittances. Those with fancy educations, leisure time and test preparation will fare better in the selection process. White people have statistically higher access to these privileged elements. Black people have (on the whole) less access. By giving different racial groups different sets of metric for achieving success, one is giving a more varied group of people access to higher education. Schools will be more diverse if different groups of people have slightly different sets of assessing criteria.

The second reason to allow for, and even promote, race-based affirmative action is that it creates equality among the races. This seems counterintuitive, since it feels like a form of counter-racism against the privileged. It is, on an individual level. The equality that affirmative action bolsters is on a race level — as a class of people. This is termed “group-regarding” equality, versus “individual-regarding” equality. This distinction allows for any given individual to be discriminated against in favor of group equality. Black people are currently, even if unintentionally, discriminated against, and in order to raise them up as a people to have equal access, they must be treated as a unit. It makes sense for that unit to have a different set of criteria for university admission. Of course, there is a test-score meritocracy within the unit, but there is additional criteria introduced and that is, to put it bluntly, a certain melatonin level.

A third and, I believe, less convincing reason to promote race-based affirmative action is rectification of historical discrimination — slavery, Jim Crow laws, etc. Yes, there was awful and consistent discrimination toward black people, but affirmative action, as a way of saying “sorry,” seems superficial. The eventual goal of affirmative action is to no longer need affirmative action, not to strengthen the institution for perpetuity.

So why is race used as the central metric at hand, and not income? Basing affirmative action on socioeconomic status has many faults. The primary one is that it negates the crucial element of what the policy attempts to correct: race-wide discrimination. Socioeconomic affirmative action does not aid in increasing diversity in schools. Poor white people outnumber poor black people by nearly an order of magnitude (eight to 10 times). According to author Robert Bruce Slater in his article “Why Socioeconomic Affirmative Action in College Admissions Works Against African Americans,” poor white people also tend to outscore poor black people within the same socioeconomic strata. There are many new immigrant families from countries all over Asia, including Korea, Thailand and Vietnam, that, by definition, have not achieved the “middle-class” demarcation but whose children perform extremely well in academic settings. High-achieving Asian high schoolers from these lower-income households would take many places within the nation’s most prestigious universities which would otherwise be reserved for black people. Socioeconomic affirmative action would, in all likelihood, increase the number of whites and Asians in America’s top universities. Universities would look less diverse if affirmative action was based on income level. Blacks would not be treated equally as a group, and there would be no rectification of past American iniquity (though, again, I believe this last consideration to be less important). Affirmative action is a specifically racial fix for an issue regarding the aiding of downtrodden races. The system is successful when it becomes obsolete — when every race does have equal opportunity.

Aaron Applbaum is a Wilson School major from Oakland, Calif. He can be reached at applbaum@princeton.edu.

comments powered by Disqus