Affirmative action is more than just a controversial topic in the world of education – it’s a minefield. Cornell University defines affirmative action as “a set of procedures designed to eliminate unlawful discrimination among applicants, remedy the results of such prior discrimination and prevent such discrimination in the future.” Sometimes it’s literally referred to as “reverse discrimination” – favoring historically disadvantaged groups over the advantaged. In terms of education, this means that applicants from these groups – blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, et cetera – can get into colleges that some of their white peers couldn’t despite having higher scores.
Is it fair? No. Does it need to be? No. Affirmative action does not exist for the purpose of equality – it’s all about equity. It’s about acknowledging the barriers that have been put in place in front of minority groups for decades and correcting for them. And, in the end, it’s about someone’s circumstances, which, whether or not they should be, race, gender and ethnicity are all a part of.
Understanding the difference between an equal system and an equitable system is crucial for understanding why affirmative action is a necessity. An equal system would consider everyone based solely on their academic performance and not consider much else. An equitable system, however, acknowledges that not everyone stands at an equal starting place and tries to compensate for it. Essentially, an equal system is designed for everyone to pull themselves up by their bootstraps; an equitable system is designed to additionally pull up those who don’t have boots.
Multiple studies confirm that there is still a discriminatory barrier facing minority groups in the United States. A study published by The American Economic Review found that job applicants with “blacker” sounding names (such as Jamal) receive fewer callbacks for job resumes sent out than applicants with “whiter” sounding names (such as Greg). Another study found that science faculty from several universities would consistently rate male applicants as more competent and hirable than female applicants, even though the name and gender of the applicant was the only detail changed between the applications. These are distinctions made between applicants on the basis of name alone – the gender of the name, the perceived ethnicity of the name. These biases, whether conscious or unconscious, affect the number of opportunities made available for these groups. Like it or not, the starting place for minorities in this country is already unequal.
Let’s look at it this way: according to Pew Research Center, the median pay for a black individual is on average five dollars an hour lower than that of a white individual. That means that there is an average deficit of 10,400 dollars a year between full-time black employees and full-time white employees. With ten thousand less to spend each year, families would likely end up living in a less expensive house and neighborhood. Now spread that deficit over that entire neighborhood – that’s a lot less money that they would be able to put into the public education system. That means less resources can be made available, lower quality teachers are hired (because, if you’re of an incredibly high quality, why teach at a school that pays you less?) and, therefore, academic performance pays the price.
It could manifest itself in multiple ways. Maybe the school has less on-hand staff. Maybe it offers fewer AP courses or extracurricular activities. Whatever the case, without affirmative action, students attending these schools would not be able to compare to those attending all or mostly white schools, which would have access to better resources. But affirmative action allows these students more opportunity to get into higher quality postsecondary schools and break the cycle.
And in none of these cases is race the only factor considered in the application process. That is actually a violation of the Civil Rights Act, as ruled by the Supreme Court in 1978. Affirmative action is not an attempt to get a more “diverse” student body; it’s a recognition of the barriers that have affected certain applicants already. It’s not a flawless system, but few systems are, and that fact doesn’t make it evil or incorrect. I say that I can take a greater risk to my own admissions to make sure that all of our children get a good pair of boots – and a good education while we’re at it.