Affirmative Action: shades of grey

When America’s best symphony orchestras evaluate potential members, the candidates audition “blind” – they play behind a screen so the admissions committee is unaware of the musician’s race, gender or appearance – the sole focus of the evaluation is the quality of the candidate’s performance. Auditions are thus a true meritocracy and better symphonies are the result.

It would be nice if everything were this easy.

A society run exclusively around principles of merit is indeed a nice idea. But in the end, that is all that it is, a nice idea. Striving to reach such a lofty ideal would be frustrating in its ultimate and inevitable futility. We cannot live our lives behind a screen. When trying for a position, whether it be a place at an elite university, a spot on the varsity football team, or a position on an organization’s board, there will inevitably be factors other than pure merit that come into play. The question now is, what is the extent to which it is acceptable for these other criterion to exist.


George W. Bush is a huge supporter of diversity, he has explained in recent years; he is simply not a fan of the way they promote diversity at the University of Michigan. Calling it a system of “unfair quotas,” the Bush administration asked the Supreme Court to rule the Michigan way unconstitutional because of the cut and dry (or black and white, if you will) scoring method it uses for rating the applicants. Namely, African American and Hispanic students receive twenty extra points out of a possible 150 during the administration scoring process simply by virtue of the color of their skin. Awarding minority applicants extra points completely independent of any academic achievement or other merit is deemed by Bush and other conservatives an unfair and discriminatory measure – one that undermines the character of an institution.

In other words, our president condemns any preferential treatment given to students on grounds other than pure academic and character-based merit.
Keeping this in mind, let us focus on the case of Dubya for a moment. George W. Bush started his academic career at Phillips Academy, went on to Yale University, and finally graduated from Harvard Business School. It is certainly safe to say that his education was first-class. Given the illustrious institutions that he had the privilege of attending, one would assume his academic career was one of unblemished excellence. Interestingly enough, however, all the way through junior-high, prep-school, and on to college, George W. Bush earned flat, unimpressive C’s. So, after having been denied admission to St. John’s, a private academy in Houston based on his less than stellar academic performance, how did he get in to Andover, one wonders? That’s easy: his daddy went there. And after having a mediocre at best run through Phillips, how did he get into Yale, one wonders again? Well, his daddy went there too…

Good thing Georgie doesn’t have a very good sense of irony, because if he did, he would find himself in quite a hypocritical bind. The very practices that he has spent much of his presidential term condemning are, interestingly enough, identical in concept to those that consistently helped our fearless leader throughout the term of his academic career. Bloodlines and connections put him through Andover, Yale and Harvard – academic merit it seems had little to do with the equation.

Indeed, it is common knowledge that Universities across the country admit legacy applicants at a shockingly higher rate than those with no legacy. These students who had the good graces to be born into families with history at certain colleges are awarded countless “extra points” in the race toward admission. Curiously enough, however, our president remains silent on this issue of blatant, discriminatory favoritism…

A widely accepted truth, the class of wealthy influential children of alumni at top universities is disproportionately white and it will remain that way as long as this form of “alumni affirmative action” stays in place. It does therefore not seem too off base to put another system into place to at least balance out its outdated counterpart, if not tip the scales a bit in the progressive direction. Thus, Affirmative Action was born.

Unfortunately, however, while he turns a blind eye to the widespread forms of extended nepotism among university admission processes, George Bush does not waver regarding the inherent injustices of Affirmative Action’s place in the admissions race. Along with other opponents of Affirmative Action, Bush argues that the policy gives under-qualified minority students spots at elite prep schools and universities while denying admission to their more qualified white counterparts.

…Images rush to mind of illiterate African Americans pulling chairs right out from under shocked white valedictorians…

Needless to say, the above description is not what Affirmative Action was established to instigate. And if our president’s career can serve as any indication of what goes on during admissions processes, the aforementioned twisted scene is not quite the situation…
Intended at its inception to serve as a catalyst for socioeconomic equality, Affirmative Action was meant to help level the playing fields for people from historically disadvantaged demographics. For a country that has always struggled with linked social, racial and economic stratification, the proposed system seemed like a great idea.

A legitimate criticism, however, of Affirmative Action is that it politicizes life chances and focuses the blame on race. At institutions where Affirmative Action is an established policy, many students of color feel scrutinized – the policy causes the merit of their admission to be called into question. In this way, Affirmative Action can unfortunately serve to perpetuate the tendencies toward segregation and discrimination that it was established to expel. Ultimately, institutions striving for academic excellence as well as a diverse student body are faced with extremely difficult decisions in the admissions process that unfortunately, cannot be dealt with in as black and white terms as, well, black and white


bh17 said...

This is a very touchy subject, especially at a university like Princeton, that is clearly affected by Affirmative Action in massive ways. Bush's disapproval of the 'Michigan way' is extremely hypocritical; it's widely known, and stated here that not only did Bush coast through prep school on his fathers name, he scored a relatively low (by Ivy League standards) SAT score of 1210.

A recent study by Princeton, in addition to the in-depth seminar the univeristy held earlier this semester, shows that ending Affirmative Action would greatly subtract from the minority college enrollment. (http://www.princeton.edu/main/news/archive/S11/80/78Q19/index.xml?section=newsreleases)
African-American enrollment would reportedly fall 66%, while Hispanic enrollment would fall by 50%. These are astounding statistics, and even though this is a hotly debated topic, it is very unlikely that Affirmative Action will ever be abolished.

Anonymous said...

I have to admit, I find President Bush's "hypocrisy," as you call it, very interesting and very compelling (maybe compelling enough to drop the scare quotes from "hypocrisy").

A couple of additional points:
1) Affirmative action, in some jurisdictions, is "illegal." The New York Times published an article in January 2007, "Little Asia On the Hill," detailing the consequences of California's prohibition of racial considerations in admissions decisions for its UC colleges: for example, the great surge in the Asian-American population in UC colleges, which coincides with the deflation of the African-American and Hispanic populations in these colleges. (I apologize for not being able to link to the article, but I would have to pay for the access to the article. And so would you, I s'pose.)
2) I'm surprised that California, a primarily blue state, after all, has taken the lead in anti-affirmative action legislation. That suggests to me that such legislation, in general, could possibly garner support in state legislatures from coast to coast.

cody said...

I'm sorry, but California's problem results directly from its implementation of anti-affirmative action legislation. It is by no means "taking the lead in anti-affirmative action legislation." The problems that the UC colleges are having with overrepresentation of Asians coinciding with decreases in Hispanic and African-American enrollment are the direct result of the state's reaction to the Michigan ruling. Currently the state university system is desperately seeking out new policies to bolster minority - non-Asian - enrollment, including working with high schools to focus on Hispanic and African-American students, creating new scholarships, etc.

California is definitely regretting the situation it has been placed in, because of the Michigan ruling. If it could, it would reverse its anti-affirmative action legislation.