A Sense Of Entitlement, Diversity, And The Argument Over Affirmative Action: Is It Still Necessary?

October 15, 2012  |  

As we prepare for the last round of presidential debates before the election, one issue both candidates will likely remain mums on is the ongoing efforts to limit affirmative action at public colleges.

Ending oral arguments last week, the Supreme Court is now weighing the case of Abigail Fisher, a 22-year-old white woman who feels that she was rejected by the University of Texas because of the school’s race-based selection process. The lawyers arguing for Fisher, who has recently graduated from Louisiana State University and has been working as a financial analyst since, says that her race was held against her. And for Fisher, whose academic record placed her in the top 12 percent of her classmates, she is “devastated” to learn that she had been passed over for students who didn’t land in the very top tier academically. In a video interview released to CNN, Fisher says, “I dreamt of going to UT ever since the second grade,” she said in a video interview released by her lawyers to bolster her case in September. “My dad went there, my sister went there and tons of friends and family, and it was a tradition I wanted to continue.”

According to the New York Times, three-quarters of applicants to the University of Texas are admitted under the school’s Top Ten program, which guarantees a spot to the top students in every high school in the state. The remaining applicants are then chosen from a number of considerations including race and ethnicity. However, the university asserts that race had nothing to do with why Fisher, who barely missed qualifying for the Top Ten program, wasn’t admitted, however the school’s affirmative action program is necessary to ensure a diverse student body, which includes students from multi-racial and economic backgrounds and for the campus. This is the second time in less than a decade that affirmative action practices within admissions systems have been challenged in the highest court in the land. In 2003, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 in favor of a race-conscious admissions system at the University of Michigan Law School, however, made the caveat that although race could be a factor, “outright racial balancing,” was prohibited.

There is no question in my mind that how affirmative action is currently being implemented is not without its problems. David Leonhart of the New York Times pointed out these problems recently:

Nobody on the other side — not the university’s lawyer, not the Obama administration’s, not the liberal justices — responded by talking about the obstacles that black and Latino students must overcome. The defenders of affirmative action spoke instead about the value of diversity. Without diverse college classes, they argued, students will learn less and society will lack for future leaders. The decision to emphasize diversity over fairness is one that affirmative-action proponents made long before Wednesday, and it is a big reason they find themselves in such a vulnerable position today.

In other words, while institutions may champion race-based admissions to fulfill goals of being “diverse,” diversity alone has never been the adequate cure to long standing racist practices. Even through diversity you can have a multi-colored people upholding policies and practices, which seek to hold other people at a disadvantage. There is no greater example of this than Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas, who while a strong opponent of Affirmative Action, probably ascended the ranks faster because he was black man with conservative leanings. I mean, if Thomas had been a regular old white republican male, championing the conservative platform, he probably wouldn’t be as prominent a figure in the Republican Party as he is now.  So in essence, the use of affirmative action can have more to do with insulating institutions from charges of racial and gender discrimination than actually offering a remedy to past wrongs.

With that said, I always found discussions around affirmative action versus merit-based standards annoying. For one, neutral standards like admission tests (like SAT, GRE, LSAT, etc…) only measure the opportunities a person once had and are not a good indicator of what they are capable of in the future.  So if you happened to be a student hailing from a more affluent educational background, which afforded you more access to educational opportunities, than you definitely have an edge on those who were limited to subpar schooling. Even within neutrality standards, it is likely that more poor students, regardless of race, from failing rural and failing urban schools will be at a much greater disadvantage than under an affirmative action program. And as our government continues to prioritize the funding of prisons over classrooms, economic segregation will continue to be just as prominent and in some respects a more pervasive barrier than just a discussion about race alone.

Likewise, there are other non-academic considerations that play into college acceptance including legacy clauses and athletic abilities, which too tend to give people an “unfair” advantage. Even the gist of Fisher’s dispute centers on the fact that she was denied entry to a school that, she felt entitled to go to because her father and sister were graduates.  Never mind that she was actually able to still attend a pretty decent college, which provided her with the training and credentials needed to get a job as a financial analyst directly out of college.

This is not always the case for most women, who suffer from greater unemployment than men and on average continue to earn 77 cents (less if you are a minority woman) for every male dollar. Or black people, including black college graduates, who continue to suffer through twice the unemployment rate of white people. Or more specifically, unrestricted black men, who, according to one study, are less likely to be considered for a job than a white man with a prison record. Point is that Fisher, among other white people, do have entitlements, which provide them with opportunities for advancement based solely on the color of their skin.  And while the fairness or even usefulness of affirmative action is loaded with ambiguities and exceptions, for right now, it is the best option we have. Most people of color do truly wish to be a living testament of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream and be judged solely by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin. But the reality is that we are just not there yet.

What are your thoughts on affirmative action?

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