A Conversation on Affirmative Action – Part 2

Posted in 2012 The Gnovis Blog  |  Tagged , , , , , ,

Note: This is the second blog in a three-blog series. To read Part 1, click here.

Harvard Law Review Board of Editors, Volume 72, 1958-1959. Image from the Harvard Law School Library.

A friend of mine at Harvard University recently wrote a blog for The Harvard Crimson titled “Affirmative Dissatisfaction: Affirmative action does more harm than good.” In the article she argues that the way in which affirmative action is currently applied “imbeds racism in the lives of future generations” and that it gives people permission to view high achieving black Americans with a grain of salt. Below is my good-spirited rebuttal to my friend’s argument. This is the second blog in a three-blog post focusing on my arguments that affirmative action is vital to a strong economy (blog one), extremely complex (which will be the topic of this second blog), and morally justified (blog three).

What affirmative action originally did was very broad. It required that government employers not discriminate against applicants based on gender, religion, race, or nationality. Today’s controversy focuses around subsequent Supreme Court cases which have established that higher institutions of learning can, in fact, use these criteria to discriminate between applicants in order to ensure a diverse student body. Harvard University was founded in 1636. The first year that a Harvard degree was awarded to a women was 1963, during the same decade that affirmative action became part of U.S. policy. My friend sits in classes at Harvard University today because of the movements surrounding affirmative action, but I highly doubt she feels like she is viewed as an inferior student because of it and I highly doubt she would argue that because of this policy generations of Americans have been imbedded with sexism.
One of the most likely reasons that many Americans no longer connect affirmative action to women is that it was easier for white women to be incorporated into America’s university system than it was for minorities. This easy transition has effectively rendered that aspect of affirmative action’s history invisible, while the race tensions that we continue to deal with today have made the racial portion of the policy ever more visible. This has meant that opinions on affirmative actions have become divided not by gender or politics, but by race. In 2009, a PEW study found that when it came to affirmative action, the opinions of white Democrats were closer to that of white Republicans than to non-white Democrats. These findings highlight a basic fact: Being white matters. It mostly matters because people making admissions and hiring decisions tend to be white. Race plays a factor in hiring even in the most liberal, open-minded individual. We tend to hire people we identify with and race plays a major role in that identity.The fact that we connect well with people who look like us is not a bad thing but it is important that we understand its role in our choices.
I would tend to agree that affirmative action should be based on class and not race. It makes logical sense to me. We by no means have an even playing field when it comes to race, but I feel it is safe to say that in this day and age the social class that one associates with and the opportunities available to one are determined more by money than by race. However, I hesitate to definitively align myself with a class-based policy over a race-based policy because I cannot fully understand the system from a minority point of view, the system being the grand matrix I discuss in my first blog, of financial, industrial, racial, educational and socio-economic networks that are inextricably linked. Furthermore, we have to allow for the possibility that if switched to a class-based policy, racism will rear its ugly head and we will start to see an increase in poor white students being admitted to universities while poor minority students disappear from college campuses.
Affirmative action is simply a type of special consideration, which is a part of life for all of us. As my friend laments in her blog she was likely accepted to Harvard as a legacy. The legacy policy, while informal, is well established and is one with narrowly-defined criteria exactly like that of affirmative action. It takes into consideration familial and financial connections to the university and subsequently relaxes admissions criteria. Following her logic that means that her high achievements should be viewed with a grain of salt, but I believe, and I bet she does also, that her academic achievements and preparedness for post-college life will not be affected by the factors surrounding her admission. And while she writes that she is very bothered by the possibility that she was admitted as a legacy, I don’t see her in The Harvard Crimson calling for an end to this unjust policy that has negatively affected her and people like her for generations. The fact is this policy has done her nothing but good.
Classifications systems are usually unfair but they are necessary. There is simply no way that society could function without them, they are how we make sense of this complicated world. The problem is that some people fall into a system that incorporates such entrenched disenfranchisement that overcoming the system is essentially impossible without government intervention. The role this disenfranchisement plays in affirmative action is discussed in the next and final blog.