Affirmative Action is Institutional Discrimination
Issue   |   Tue, 09/25/2012 - 23:14

I’ve always been a fan of using facts in opinion articles. When I was an editor for The Student freshman year, I noticed that, many times, people wouldn’t cite anything to support their argument. Sometimes it may have been because the facts would have repudiated their article, but, most of the time, the inclusion of supporting facts would have greatly strengthened what they were trying to say.

There are some areas, however, where the inclusion of facts actually obscures the issues at play. Affirmative action is one of these areas, in which people will throw statistics, philosophies, “white guilt” and the kitchen sink at anyone who opposes its policies.

I really appreciated Katrin’s article on the subject two weeks ago for two reasons. First, she was able to argue an aspect of the case against affirmative action that I would be completely unable to argue myself. Second, she eschewed the factual-battering-ram approach, instead using personal experience to show how affirmative action breaks down in application. There are limitations to that approach, yes, but she recognized that and utilized her approach in a manner that was extremely effective.

In fairness, the articles published last week in response to hers largely declined the use of facts as well. The one using the fewest blatant factual appeals was by far the most cogent, while the one appealing to Supreme Court decisions and the text of the College’s amicus brief was a non-sequitur wonderland which led the reader from an “argument” for affirmative action to an attack on finance capital and the market in general. In keeping with this trend, I’m going to go a little lighter on numbers than I often do in my articles. When it comes to moral considerations, it’s best to leave the numbers out sometimes.

The main problem with affirmative action is that it discriminates, whether on the basis of race, gender, hometown, parents’ educational status or athletic ability. The quota system has been effectively outlawed, but colleges are allowed to take various factors, such as those listed above, into consideration “at the margins.” It doesn’t matter, though, where colleges use race as a determining factor in admissions: any use of it constitutes discrimination on the basis of race. The same is true for any of the aforementioned factors.

Discrimination does not need to have a negative effect to be considered discrimination. If I were discriminated against by Williams, if they decided that they didn’t really want a white guy, or a Christian, or an Iowan, but I was accepted to Harvard because they wanted another Republican, discrimination benefits me. Even if it benefits a person, discrimination is still wrong. Furthermore, even if you are discriminating in favor of someone — if you were accepting him over someone else with the same qualifications because he was of a minority race, for example — you are still discriminating against them. Implicit in such discrimination is the idea that the minority student needs a leg-up on the competition in order to combat the disadvantages of being a part of his or her race or class.

Discrimination is wrong because it subscribes to a notion of racial (or socio-economic, or religious, or locational) determinism. The use of discrimination implies that you can draw legitimate inferences about a person on the basis of his race, class or birthplace. Deterministic models are clearly wrong, because you can’t assume that a person is lazy, rich or a Democrat because of his or her race. One of my best friends on campus is a black Republican; few of my white friends come from “privileged” families; the only stereotype that holds true in my friend group is that one of my Asian friends has a 4.0 GPA, and that’s not a result of her race but her work ethic.

Discrimination and determinism are wrong, but the government has held that it is permissible to do things that are wrong if it is for a justifiable reason. What is the reason used by colleges to justify their discriminatory practices? Currently, the byword is “diversity.” What the diversity justification essentially boils down to is the idea that, by accepting students from many countries, races and socio-economic backgrounds, a college can force students to interact with people of varied viewpoints and past experiences, which will benefit their education by requiring them to learn from others, abandon stereotypes and become more cosmopolitan.

Diversity breaks down as a cohesive justification for discriminatory practices rather quickly. First, it returns us to the realm of determinism; to assume that someone will have a different background or viewpoint on the basis of his or her race or socio-economic class is a deterministic idea. Thus, discriminatory determinism is used as a justification for affirmative action. Next, it assumes that confronting students with diversity on campus will force them to interact with and benefit from it. I won’t say any more on that subject, but I will refer the reader back to Katrin’s article. Additionally, while affirmative action holds positive goals in increasing the overall college completion rate among minorities to mirror that of other groups and in combating racism and stereotypes by bringing people face-to-face with those they may have been prejudiced against, it uses discrimination as a means to that end. That’s right: the idea of affirmative action is to use discrimination to combat discrimination. I have a final bone to pick with affirmative action: I thought it was supposed to provide a diversity of viewpoints, and yet this campus is overwhelmingly liberal. If we’re going to let any minority group in, perhaps it should be Republicans?

In all seriousness, diversity is not a legitimate enough end to justify the use of discrimination, even if it were to achieve favorable objectives. Affirmative action is unjustifiable, and so, therefore, is the filing of an amicus brief by the College to support institutionalized discrimination and racial determinism.

It’s nice to have a discussion about this now, but our thoughts likely won’t matter in a few months, when the Supreme Court renders a decision in Fisher v. University of Texas. Hopefully, that decision will finally label affirmative action for what it is: illegal discrimination. When it finally comes down to a matter of discrimination, I think Chief Justice Roberts says it best: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

An older alum (not verified) says:
Tue, 10/09/2012 - 00:20

Your opinion, with regard to "affirmative action" in the admissions process is based on a faulty assumption: that the admissions process is objective in the first place. The myth of absolute meritocracy in college admissions may make accepted students feel good about themselves, but it is fairly far from reality. With a 13% acceptance rate, do you really think that objective criteria were -- or even could be -- applied to over 8,000 applicants, the bulk of whom would probably do just fine at the college? You may think that facts confuse the issue, but had you bothered to do a little more research, I think you find that differential treatment is given to students with particular interests (athletics, community service, arts, etc.), for geographical distribution, for having parents who attended Amherst, and so forth. In addition, diversity efforts are targeted toward broadening the applicant pool, and measures of potential are not limited to sheer grades and test scores, but put in context with secondary school education and writing samples. Though not possibly objective, an attempt is made at thoroughness and contextual understanding.

What your really article implies is odious: that if the college did not pursue a commitment to diversity, the college would be less diverse based on "merit" alone -- that were it not for what you call "affirmative action" some more whites of Republicans would be here instead. But reality is more complicated, and the paths to admission to a highly selective school like Amherst are easier for some, for a variety of reasons. It is in the college's (and indeed the nation's) long-term interest to expand and facilitate additional pathways.

As for the liberal bent of many, if not most, students, this is a more complicated question that should be looked at in terms of self-selection of applicants, and the political leanings of your entire age group alongside those applying to liberal arts colleges.

To be sure, the college publicizes diversity information and reaches out to potential minority applicants, and lower-income applicants of all races (and to community college students who have pursued less conventional paths), precisely because it has decided that broad access is core to its mission to make diversity and income distribution a priority. One need only read the history of the college to know that the roots of such commitments go back to its founding. This is where you are. But indeed, given that slightly less than half of the college's students receive no financial aid, it still has a long way to go to reflect the country as a whole. One could certainly make a case for cutting some amenities in order to admit fewer full-pay students, to make room for more in lower income brackets (of any race).

Furthermore, as a private institution, the college may, according to current law, admit students based on any legal criteria it chooses. It could, for example, reduce its majors offerings to humanities only, effectively discriminating against math whizzes. But then the college wouldn't be competitive, would it? And perhaps the college wouldn't be competitive without a commitment to racial and income diversity either. Indeed, the diversity of the student body is considered by most a mark of the college's quality. But you are far from providing a convincing argument in the abstract that the college discriminates against whites (or conservatives) because, perhaps, a few dozen more, out of thousands of applicants, were forced to go to Dartmouth (for example) instead, all other factors being "equal."

Finally, you are tone deaf to history. While deliberate "reverse" discrimination is, perhaps, indefensible, not all ways of distinguishing people from one another are equivalent. To pretend otherwise is to ignore both past history, and present challenges to equality of opportunity. It is little more than myopic. Why not make the case that students with any GPA or test scores whatsoever be allowed to attend, selected from the applicant pool by a random drawing? Seriously. In order to be fair, one would still want to reach out to students of all backgrounds and income levels in order to extend the opportunity as equitably as possible. Given the role that some measure of merit does actually play in the admissions process, given your willful ignorance regarding "facts" or, indeed, any context (historical and otherwise), I would say you are lucky to be an Amherst student. In point of fact, all of are (or were).

Interested (not verified) says:
Sun, 02/24/2013 - 17:45

"You may think that facts confuse the issue, but had you bothered to do a little more research, I think you find that differential treatment is given to students with particular interests (athletics, community service, arts, etc.), for geographical distribution, for having parents who attended Amherst, and so forth."

At least athletics, community service, and arts, denote some dedication to an activity rather than a skin color. When you delve into hobbies, activities, and athletics, you see the personality behind the act rather than the physical attributes constituting a person. I do agree with you on geographical location and alumni status, of course. This article is mainly focusing on the racial discrimination that has been allowed due to affirmative action. Accepting students based on diversity of personality is a much fairer way of admission to college, so long as race is not used as an automatic personality attribute.

I am far too lazy to comment to Lazythinking's entire post. I would like to talk about a question this poster raised.

Why not make the case that students with any GPA or test scores whatsoever be allowed to attend, selected from the applicant pool by a random drawing?

My response:

Because GPA and test scores don't describe a student as well as that student's personal activities and volunteerism do. In addition the essays that every applicant must write (are supposed to) provide significant portraits of a student's personality. Test scores very well should be used as a floor. Students should have to score above within, at most, a standard deviation of the average applicant accepted in order to even be looked at. Students with scores at least a standard deviation above the mean should have a very strong case for admittance. In between should be based on subjective factors but never based on race.

I also disagree that "diversity" should be seen as a mark of a college's quality. Achievement, and excellence in various fields should be that mark. Racial diversity should not even be mentioned in any pamphlet, college run discussion or statement.