Affirmative Action and Balance

Justice et inégalité - les plateaux de la balance by Frachet, Jan 2010, Public Domain via Wikimedia CommonsThe recent Supreme Court decision in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, et al., was a cautious but significant one in favor of affirmative action. As Adam Liptak writes in his New York Times article ‘Supreme Court Upholds Affirmative Action Program at University of Texas‘, while ‘not all affirmative action programs will pass constitutional muster… the ruling’s basic message was that admissions officials may continue to consider race as one factor among many in ensuring a diverse student body.’

This opposes the central tenet of affirmative action opposition: admission to universities can only be based on merit, which in turn is determined mainly by grades buttressed by the quality of relative achievements; therefore, only color-blind admissions criteria are just and fair.

But as we all well know, educational institutions have been generally the purview of the wealthy, the connected, and the white for most of our history. Opponents of affirmative action say the only way to correct this historic injustice is to remove considerations of race and wealth in the admissions process itself, relying on other methods of promoting equal opportunity in education so as to make historically disadvantaged groups equally capable of high test scores and advanced achievement.

But I don’t agree, and am a proponent of some types of affirmative action, including the University of Texas’ well-designed and balanced method, for many reasons.

For one, some sort of affirmative action appears necessary to balance the historical wrongs of our educational system. I picture a classic scale, with a neutral, color-blind system based on merit alone as its fulcrum. For most of our history, the weights of racial, social, and economic privilege were piled almost entirely on one end. If the weights hadn’t been placed all at one end over time, then sure, color-blind admissions criteria might be fine. Opponents of affirmative action argue that the balance has already been corrected by other methods, such as a free public educational system, anti-discrimination laws, certain welfare and scholarship programs, and so on. But if it’s really been balanced, why the continued disparity in outcomes, within the schools and in relative chances of success after graduation in so many arenas of life? Putting the idea that some races are just naturally more gifted and capable of achievement than others aside for the moment, which I’ll consider shortly and (spoiler alert!) reject, the failure of equality in outcomes strongly suggest that color-blind policies don’t balance it all out. I think they are again, at best, the fulcrum of the scale, the default position. But the fact that race, money, and connections have been piled on one end over the centuries can’t be undone, so the balance can’t be reached by simply removing the weight of history. The weights with which to balance the other side are also selective policies, this time favoring those who are not part of historically advantaged groups, such as the wealthy, connected, and white. Of course, merit must count, as it’s always done; it would be a disservice to students to remove the challenge and expectation of excellence that propel learning and achievement, and this Supreme Court agrees. But it’s become clear that test-based merit can’t be the only consideration if we wish to right the balance.

To return to the idea that some racial and ethnic groups are naturally more intelligent or capable of advanced achievement than others: this claim has been shown by science and history to be deeply flawed, to say the least. All racial and ethnic groups have produced too many individuals of great intellectual ability and advanced achievement to make this claim convincing to anyone but the most hardened racists, and civilizations throughout history, made of up people of all races, have taken turns outperforming others in innovation and intellectual advances throughout world history. While test scores have shown that many racial and ethnic groups do, at times, perform lower on tests, the results change dramatically as the social circumstances of the test-takers do. If the ability to score high on tests is changeable, then it’s not likely to be simply genetic. And this is assuming that performance on such tests is the same thing, or a direct predictor of, merit as it relates to education, which is a huge and I think unjustifiable assumption, but this is a topic outside of the scope of this essay.

Furthermore, studies have also shown us is that student success and failure can depend not only intelligence and socioeconomic background, but on expectations of success on the part of teachers, of families, of communities, and most importantly, of the students themselves. To claim that a student has an equal opportunity to succeed whether or not they are part of a student body that includes a significant number of others like them, racially or otherwise, is untenable. There are a few particularly individualistic personalities who can and do achieve highly despite isolation on campus, despite racism, classicism, legal discrimination, and so forth. But as members of a highly social species, most human beings rely much more on the opinions of their fellow human beings, and on feelings of companionship and belonging. And when a student looks around campus and sees few or no-one like them, it’s unlikely they’ll expect to succeed where those like themselves have not.

The Supreme Court recognizes this simple fact: color-blind admissions programs are not always just in a society that’s not and never has been color-blind. Admissions programs admit real students into real campuses where they help prepare them for success in the real world – an often racist world. If an admissions program doesn’t succeed in making a campus look like an institution of a free and democratic society which values opportunity for all, it’s unlikely it could be a just and fair one.

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Sources and inspiration:

Affirmative Action: Court Decisions.’ National Conference of State Legislatures website

Booth, Margaret Zoller and Jean M. Gerard. Self-esteem and academic achievement: a comparative study of adolescent students in England and the United States, Sept 2011

The Black-White Test Score Gap. Edited by Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips,
Brookings Institution Press, 1998.

Lindsey, Brink. ‘Why People Keep Misunderstanding the ‘Connection’ Between Race and IQ.’ The Atlantic, MAY 15, 2013

Liptak, Adam. ‘Supreme Court Upholds Affirmative Action Program at University of Texas‘. The New York Times, June 23, 2016

Tauber, Robert T. Classroom Management: Sound Theory and Effective Practice. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007