This post is Part II in a two part series about the Supreme Court and Affirmative Action. Part I ran on 1/30/13.
By Jon Reid ’13
The question of whether or not affirmative action is right is not an easy one. The majority of Americans feel that we have a responsibility to those we institutionally discriminated against and enslaved for hundreds of years that extends beyond a mere declaration of their freedom and equality (Gallup.com). The socioeconomic race had been going on for 250 years before many minorities were allowed to compete, giving them a jumpstart is the least we can do. However, are we willing to stomach the consequences? This past year Ron Unz’s article, The Myth of American Meritocracy, which was a Sidney Award nominee, highlighted the disproportionate repercussions of affirmative action that are shouldered by Asian Americans. In his article Unz traces admission rates of Asian Americans to the three most selective universities in the nation, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, and produces a rather disturbing trend. From 1970 to the late 1980s the rate of Asian Americans admitted to these institutions rose dramatically, peaking in 1993 at over 23%. In 1994, however, the number shot down to 17% inexplicably, and while the percent of Asian Americans applying to these schools has steadily increased, the percent admitted has been within 1 percentage point of 16.5% for the past 15 years. A trend that appears to be indefensible to the claims that these schools’ admissions are based on a quota system (an illegal practice, Bakke v. Regents, 1978) and one Unz points out mirrors the enrollment trend of American Jews to universities in the years prior to World War II.
There is also the issue of whether or not affirmative action works. Proponents argue that without race and gender factors taken into account educational diversity would plummet. Opponents however point toward the statistics that show where affirmative action has been banned at the state level (a policy that does not include private universities) such as Washington, California, and Michigan, minority graduation rates have dramatically improved. They argue that affirmative action places many students in academic environments that they are not equipped to succeed in and as a result they persist to perform poorly. Their below average academic performance later translates into a general lack of competiveness of these students at the next level when they apply for admission to graduate, law, or medical school. In a statement issued by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas “ placing students in places they don’t belong doesn’t help them, it hurts them.”
These arguments, rooted in statistics and personal narratives, which attempt to strike down the well-intentioned ideal of affirmative action are hard to counter, and with a conservative Supreme Court, affirmative action is likely to be scaled back. This country, however, has always found prosperity in its commitment to diversity and, in fact, it has been diversity that has largely defined America from its creation. Are we ready to accept a reality where our public academic institutions do not represent the populace from which it draws from, by which they are financially supported? Or is there a third option?
From Malcolm Gladwell to Daniel Kahneman, there is an emerging field of research on the human mind and the factors of success that seem to provide an alternative. Rather than supplement current achievement measurements (SAT, GRE, MCAT) with factors such as race, gender, and nationality, many have argued we should instead focus on potential; a system focused on graduating the brightest and most gifted students, rather than enrolling strictly those whose parents could afford afterschool tutors or who had the time to drive their children to their extracurriculars. As such, barriers and challenges like those experienced by Cheryl Hopwood would be taken into account, just as any child born into poverty or raised by a single parent would receive extra consideration for unmet potential, no matter their color or creed. This would at last help diminish racial and gender issues, effectively allocate our precious educational resources, and give America the leaders it deserves, and desperately needs.
Jonathan Reid, ’13, is a PAC Special Events Co-Coordinator and would have used a quote from Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had he not worn that puffy black chapeau at the inauguration.