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Acting Affirmatively
Yevgeny Vilensky • End it don’t mend it
April 2003

Last week, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case Grutter v. Bollinger where a student denied admission to the University of Michigan Law School sued the school for discrimination. The Supreme Court also heard arguments in a case involving undergraduate admissions, Gratz v. Bollinger, where a student rejected from the University of Michigan undergraduate college filed a similar suit. The cases represent two different, yet inextricably related, sides to affirmative action and other race-based admissions policies.

Speaking out against affirmative action is one of the quickest ways to lose friends at Yale. To do so is to subject oneself to accusations of racism, elitism, and utter heartlessness.

There are a number of reasons why people support affirmative action. One is to redress past discrimination. Another is to encourage equality and a level playing field. Finally, diversity is often cited as a compelling factor: that a diverse student body made up of different racial and ethnic groups aids students’ educations. All of these arguments seem cogent, yet affirmative action, as practiced by universities, amounts to little more than race baiting and feel-good politics.

Redress for past and current racism

America has had a rather ignominious past, to say the least, with regards to race relations. The injustices of slavery and Jim Crow laws are an indelible mark on this nation, ones that kept African-Americans at a disadvantage compared to whites in every aspect of life, particularly in college admissions.

Another argument along similar lines is that affirmative action is necessary in order to keep minorities from being discriminated against in the admissions process right now. This line of thinking is quite easy to dispose of.

First, if affirmative action is not about strict quotas, as most of its proponents have been frothing at the mouth to proclaim (since under the 1978 Bakke decision, the Supreme Court held that racial quotas are unconstitutional), then affirmative action can do nothing to alleviate current discrimination. Discrimination in admissions is already illegal for any college or university accepting even a penny of federal aid. Since all but a handful or so schools in America do, its admissions officers, by law, are not allowed to discriminate in admissions. Yet, say that there is a racist admissions officer somewhere out there. If he were already willing to break federal law in order to grind his racist axe, why would he not go against the affirmative action policies of his school? The only way to prevent this kind of discrimination is to have quotas, which are extremely unpopular (more than 60% of Americans oppose them according to latest polls), illegal, and amount to racism.

Second, admissions officers, particularly at elite universities, are probably among the most liberal, politically correct demographic groups out there. Not to say that liberals are not sometimes racists, but chances are that this is not the demographic group that is just waiting to keep blacks and Hispanics out of college.

The argument of historical racism is just as wrong. Many justify affirmative action on the grounds that as a result of a history of racism, blacks were kept away from the reigns of power and prosperity. They claim that this must be redressed via encouragements from the government – and voluntary actions on the part of universities – to correct this. There are a number of problems with this argument, particularly as it relates to elite universities such as Yale.

First, many of the beneficiaries of affirmative action, especially those at elite colleges and universities were not historically victims of discrimination in this country. Many students who benefit from affirmative action are often themselves, or are children of, immigrants from the West Indies or Africa. For example, Colin Powell, who is often touted as an affirmative action success story, is himself a child of Jamaican immigrants. In essence, many who benefit from affirmative action are not people whose parents were discriminated against by Jim Crow. Because affirmative action programs are almost universally based on skin color, they cannot distinguish between those for whom such a program would in fact be redress for past discrimination and those for whom it would simply be an undeserved handout.

Second, this attitude views black applicants not as individuals, but rather as a collective group that can be stereotyped and lumped into the same category. This in fact, encourages racial separatism, resentment, and even further racism. People who were victims of de jure discrimination are not the ones applying for admissions to colleges, professional programs, and graduate schools now. The redress argument assumes that we can heal – or help heal – some of the racial wounds in this country by throwing a bone to the collective minority masses. It treats the black community as a block that only cares about getting a certain number of their kids into college. It does not treat each student as an individual, but rather as an instrument of social policy. Never mind that the wounds of the actual people facing discrimination have not, nor probably can ever be healed, by such a policy. In essence, affirmative action sickly perverts the very idea of a color-blind society, by treating black students not as individuals but rather members of a racial group.

Equality

The need for racial equality is a very compelling argument in favor of affirmative action. For example, the amicus curie brief submitted by Yale, Harvard, and Stanford law students to the Supreme Court in the Grutter case, argued that affirmative action is necessary in order to achieve an integrated legal profession. Furthermore, because elite law schools are often instrumental to gaining a foothold in the power structure of American society (as evidence, they cite the law schools of justices on the bench), affirmative action is necessary to allow blacks the opportunity for power and prosperity.

This argument is difficult to deal with. The first observation that needs to be made is that not all minorities are disadvantaged minorities and that not all white people are advantaged. This point is particularly salient in the Grutter case, which deals with law school admissions at Michigan. Michigan is an elite law school. Much like other elite law schools such as Harvard and Yale, many of the minority students already come from elite undergraduate institutions like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, or Amherst, just to name a few. Even if there is a compelling interest to affirmative action for the sake of equality in undergraduate admissions, how is allowing lower standards for Harvard graduates promoting equality and opportunity? At that point, the playing field is essentially leveled. Black students from Harvard had the same opportunities to succeed as white students did. Unless someone is willing to argue that these elite schools discriminate against black students and make it difficult for them to do well and get a good education, this argument is utterly irrelevant in the law school case.

The fact that elite law schools lower their standards for minority applicants – even those who attended elite undergraduate institutions – implies that there is something inherent about being black that makes one score lower on the LSAT’s or get a lower GPA. I doubt that the NAACP is ready to embrace this line of argument. In essence, the question of when can we stop needs to be asked. If the playing field is not leveled after having graduated from Yale College, why would it be leveled after graduating from Stanford Law?

A similar point, though one that is not as strong, can be made of undergraduate admissions. Many of the black students here went to elite private preparatory schools. Some come from Choate, Andover, and Exeter, schools that most white kids in America do not have an opportunity to attend. Such students do not need special handouts. Their educational opportunities in high school were hardly limited.

Second, most proponents of affirmative action claim that it is a temporary measure, that a day will come when affirmative action will no longer be necessary. But how can affirmative action ever become unnecessary? It does nothing to encourage better inner-city schools that help its students be actually qualified to get into college without special consideration. It does nothing to bridge the significant gap in SAT scores between white and minority students. It does nothing to encourage educational excellence and leadership among minorities. It is true that other social policy programs can do that. But, affirmative action by itself does nothing of that sort. In fact, it quiets the urgency of solutions to these problems because it already takes into account these inequities in our system and tries to correct them on the results level. The first thing that needs to be done is for us to work toward racial equality on the opportunity level.

Diversity

Diversity is very important to a liberal arts education and this is a very good argument in favor of affirmative action. In fact, racial diversity is and should be a factor to be considered among many when selecting an incoming class. Diversity benefits students’ educations, by allowing them to interact with other students who come from vastly different backgrounds then they do. In fact, the Gratz case is a very borderline one, since the University of Michigan has a point system that uses minority status as one among many considerations of diversity. For example, coming from the upper peninsula of Michigan can net someone almost as many points as being black. Being economically disadvantaged garners them the same number of points (and in fact, one can not get both minority points and economic disadvantage points).

Yet the way universities implement diversity-based admissions implies that they care very little about actual diversity and a lot about increasing their minority enrollment numbers for numbers sake. First of all, on the Yale application, the only explicit diversity question asked is the one about race. It does not ask how much your parents make (it does on financial aid forms, but because Yale is need blind, that data is not used in making admissions decisions). It does not ask you whether you are a child of immigrants. It does not ask you whether you grew up in the inner city. Obviously, these are all aspects that can be brought to light in an essay or interview. But, so can one’s racial diversity.

If race is one factor amongst many, why is it then that the only explicit diversity question on an application has to do with race? The best question to encourage diversity on campus is an essay that asks straightforwardly what diversity the student can bring to campus. If someone feels that the fact that she is a minority is a particular asset that she can bring, she should talk about that. If someone feels that because growing up in Appalachia makes him unique and allows him to bring a new perspective on campus life, he should discuss that in his essay. If race is among many considerations of diversity in admissions, why not allow everyone to make their case for how they will make the campus more diverse?

This is the reason why the Supreme Court should rule in the plaintiffs’ favor in the Gratz case. In their point system, the University of Michigan does account for other factors of diversity besides race. All of those factors have to do with being disadvantaged in some way. Yet, why is being disadvantaged the only aspect of diversity? In fact, a points system such as the one at Michigan prevents admissions counselors from taking other aspects of diversity into account. There is nowhere in their rubric for a student to get diversity points for being a child of Vietnamese immigrants, for example or someone who went to boarding school in Switzerland. Clearly both would bring diverse perspectives to campus, yet none of those are taken into account by Michigan’s point system. Only having been disadvantaged in some obvious way – growing up in the rural upper peninsula, being black, or being poor – are considered. This seems to imply that Michigan does not care about the diversity aspect of their policy, since many other characteristics that they do not take into account clearly contribute to campus diversity, but rather want to be an instrument of social justice.

Second, to understand the disingenuous nature of the diversity argument one needs to understand the role of diversity at a university in the first place. The reason why diversity is a compelling interest in a liberal arts institution is that students get to interact and learn from other students. Yet Yale, and most other colleges and universities for that matter, explicitly encourage racial separatism. For example, at last year’s Cultural Connections, minority students had a code phrase, “It’s snowing” to denote the arrival of the rest of the freshman class on campus. In fact, white students are not allowed to participate in the orientation program meant for minorities only, despite interest from white students to do so. Why does Yale – along with most other schools – not encourage integration, but rather discourage it? If diversity were indeed so important to those schools’ administrations – as it should be – then those administrations would probably do much more to help it by encouraging integration than by supporting affirmative action.

While diversity is vital to a liberal arts education, its role in professional and graduate admissions is highly dubious. Professional schools look for applicants that are going to become skilled professionals. Graduate schools look for applicants who are most likely to succeed as academics in their chosen field. Why would physics graduate programs need a diverse student body? Does general relativity not apply to white students in the same manner as to black ones? At a panel on affirmative action during Martin Luther King Day weekend, C. Vann Woodward Professor of History Glenda Gilmore claimed that because different racial and ethnic groups have different technological needs, scientists whose work has practical applications need diversity to tell them what to study. Not only does such a comment demonstrate Professor Gilmore’s cluelessness about science and technology, but also a kind of intellectual dishonesty. It is highly doubtful that someone who attended college has never met a minority. One does not need to get to know a member of a minority group on a deep and personal level in order to understand what technological needs exist in the world.

Affirmative action is a very destructive force in American society. First, it fails to achieve the objectives its proponents claim it has. Second, it treats blacks, Latinos, Philippinos, and other groups who benefit from this policy, as a racial block, rather than considering each individual on his merits. This aspect is highly disturbing because it perpetuates a society that is not color-blind, a kind of society that proponents of affirmative action themselves are trying to change.

Finally, it perpetuates a kind of gross racism. While this argument is often hackneyed, it is an important problem with affirmative action. Its supporters cannot claim that the policy does not have practical costs and consequences. For every black student admitted with lower standards, a white student meeting higher standards was probably denied admission. It is easy for students already at Yale and already at the University of Michigan School of Law to support this policy. But how many of them would be willing to say before applying to college or before their kids apply to college, that they would give up their spot in the class so that some Hispanic or African American student could have an opportunity to attend that school? It is doubtful that many would. The Supreme Court should rule in favor of the plaintiffs in the two cases and help our society move to one that truly cares about diversity in education and does not judge people on the basis of their race.

Yevgeny Vilensky is Editor-in-Chief.


 
 

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