Why Affirmative Action Must End

Ending Unfair Admissions Practices

By Cory Liu

Imagine for a moment that you were the head of a committee charged with giving awards to the 100 fastest runners in the United States, and you had to choose between two proposals. The first proposal calls for a series of track meets to be held across the country, with the 100 fastest runners being selected. The second proposal is identical to the first and also calls for a series of track meets across the country, except for one change – instead of simply choosing the 100 fastest runners, you are to select the fastest ones that allow for the group's racial composition to match a pre-determined ratio.

If giving the awards to the fastest runners is the only objective, then the first proposal is clearly superior. The extra condition in the second proposal would make it so that if the racial composition of the 100 fastest runners did not conform exactly to the ratio, slower runners would have to be chosen to fill the racial quota. Affirmative action in the college admissions process is remarkably similar to the second proposal above. Though one's high school transcript and test scores largely determine one's chance of admission, applicants are judged on their academic competitiveness only after being sorted into racial groups and incoming classes are chosen to have a racial composition that matches a particular ratio. In doing so, colleges trade away students who have demonstrated more academic promise for the sake of producing a particular racial composition.

A look at the statistics shows the concrete effects of this policy. Thomas Espenshade and Chang Y. Chung from Princeton University conducted a study showing how racial preference in college admissions at ten selective private universities translated into 230 extra points on the SAT for African-Americans on a 1600 scale, 185 points for Hispanics, and a loss of 50 points for Asians. They found that the elimination of affirmative action would result in as much as a one-half to two-thirds decline in acceptance rates for African-Americans and Hispanics, and a one-third increase for Asians.

Robert Lerner, PhD '84, and Althea K. Nagai, PhD '86, from the Center for Equal Opportunity found similar results by reviewing admissions data at several major universities. At the University of California, Berkeley, African-Americans scored 330 points lower than whites on a 1600 scale, Hispanics scored 210 points lower, and Asians scored 10 points higher. At the University of Virginia, African-Americans scored 180 points lower on a 1600 scale, Hispanics scored 50 points lower, and Asians 10 points higher. At the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, African-Americans scored 230 points lower, Hispanics scored 130 points lower, and Asians scored 50 points higher. They also calculated that given identical SAT scores and high school grades, an African-American student is 111.1 times more likely to be admitted to the University of Virginia, and 173.7 times more likely at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. A Hispanic student is 131.23 times more likely to be admitted to Michigan, and 4.84 times more likely at Virginia. In contrast, the difference between Asians and whites is statistically insignificant at Virginia, while Asians are 0.76 times as likely to be admitted to Michigan.

Proponents of race-based affirmative action defend it by arguing that admissions committees are seeking to build a community that would benefit from racial diversity, and that such preferences help admissions committees take into account the fact that minorities face unique difficulties and challenges because of their race. However, while these are noble intentions, race-based affirmative action is a flawed policy that does not truly advance these goals.

Diversity is certainly important in the creation of a community of students. Whether through visiting a foreign country or joining a community of students on a college campus, whenever we meet people who are different from us, we begin to pay attention to ideas, customs, and practices that we previously took for granted, allowing us to inquire into the reasons behind them.

The problem with race-based affirmative action is that it only recognizes one kind of diversity, a kind of diversity based on an artificial and superficial system of classification. As many proponents of racial equality have pointed out, race is a societal construct. Consider the term "Asian," which millions of Americans, myself included, are forced to identify with. The category "Asian" covers over half of the world's population, including the nations of China and India, whose peoples are as distinguishable in appearance as blacks and whites in America. "Asian" essentially means "anywhere east of Europe." The term is meaningful only in that it suits the descriptive needs of most Americans.

The artificiality of race is also illustrated by the problem posed by multiracial applicants. Let us imagine for a second, a student with distant Hispanic ancestry – so distant in fact that it makes him no different from any other white student in terms of his cultural background or personal experience of hardship or discrimination. Yet under the racial system, that student can list himself as having "Hispanic" ancestry, ancestry which gives him preferential treatment. This highlights two important problems with affirmative action. One, that there is no clear-cut definition of how much ancestry is needed to claim membership in a race, and two, that there is no easy way to verify the truth of a person's claim of racial membership. We wouldn't believe this person for a second if he told us he was Hispanic, but that would not make a difference on his college application. How can we reliably distinguish between a full Caucasian and a person who is 1/64th Hispanic simply on the basis of appearance? College admissions committees don't even have appearances to go on; all they have is self-identification with a race.

By claiming that preferential treatment on the basis of race supports diversity, colleges act on a very narrow definition of diversity. People can learn from encountering others who differ from them in a variety of ways other than race. Imagine a student from a strongly Christian community encountering a Hindu for the first time, a punk rock musician meeting a lover of Mozart, a future theoretical physicist having dinner with a friend who reads the works of Aristotle in the original Greek. The number of ways in which we can learn from those who are different from us is immeasurable. Yet affirmative action gives preferential treatment only on the basis of a crude and arbitrary system of classifying people.

A second argument for affirmative action is that the unique challenges faced by minorities should be taken into consideration when evaluating their applications. It is certainly a noble goal to give preferences to promising applicants who did not have the same privileges and opportunities that many others had. But this raises the question of how it is possible for an admissions committee to accurately gauge the degree to which a given candidate suffered from a lack of opportunity. How can an admissions committee determine the extent to which any individual candidate deserves preferential treatment? Colleges do not ask recipients to demonstrate how racial discrimination has harmed them before giving them preferential treatment. They make these judgments on the basis that the applicant is a member of an underrepresented minority. An underrepresented minority is a racial group that would be unable, without affirmative action, to put forth enough competitive applications to achieve a percentage of students in a college class equal to its percentage in the general population. African-Americans and Hispanics are underrepresented minorities, while Asians are overrepresented. In other words, admissions committees simply take the fact that certain racial groups have weaker applications as sufficient reason to give preferential treatment to members of that racial group.

They act as if African-Americans and Hispanics, simply because of their race, must have all suffered from discrimination that warrants preferential treatment. They also act as if Asians, because of their higher than average level of achievement, could not have suffered from lack of opportunity due to racial discrimination, even though during the same time as segregation, many Japanese-Americans were forcibly relocated to internment camps on the basis of their race. Furthermore, affirmative action neglects to consider how non-racial factors can affect one's opportunities. An African-American from a wealthy, privileged family receives the same preferential treatment as one from a poor, inner-city neighborhood. A first-generation Asian immigrant whose family is barely making ends meet is treated no differently from one with access to the best education.

Race-based affirmative action is a crude and utterly ineffective method for creating a truly diverse student body. Furthermore, it does not accurately take into account the real inequalities of opportunity it is meant to correct. In light of this, one cannot help but feel that colleges are woefully narrow-minded when they claim to be concerned with diversity and equality of opportunity, while awarding preferential simply on the basis of race. How could someone genuinely concerned with these issues justify using such narrow criteria? If colleges truly wanted people with diverse ideas, customs, and practices, they would ask their applicants to submit additional information asking for such information. If they truly wanted to recognize the hardships of promising students from underprivileged backgrounds, they would give preferential admissions based on their families' economic situations. Instead they seek only to achieve a particular racial composition.

When affirmative action was first instituted, such a goal was certainly reasonable and appropriate. In an environment where politicians had run on platforms of segregation and African-Americans were denied admission on the basis of their race, requiring a concrete goal of increasing the number of African-American students admitted showed that one was truly committed to diversity and equality of opportunity. But in today's environment, in which it is both illegal and politically suicidal to act in such a blatantly racist manner, affirmative action only serves to perpetuate a narrow-minded view of diversity and equality of opportunity.

The United States has become increasingly diverse since affirmative action was first instituted – the Census Bureau estimates that white Americans will make up only 46 percent of the population in the year 2050. Now that the country has becomes so much more racially and culturally diverse, with interracial marriage reaching an all-time high, race is becoming an increasingly crude and superficial method of categorizing people. Rather than serving to eliminate racism, affirmative action has become a vehicle for perpetuating this divisive system of classification. Because of the clear disconnect between affirmative action and the actual promotion of true diversity and equality of opportunity, it seems to institutionalize the notion that minorities are less capable, and therefore need special preferences based on unsound pretenses. In such an environment, it is impossible to have a truly race-blind culture, in which one's race is an attribute no different from one's height or weight. America's colleges and universities would do best to abandon race-based affirmative action in favor of methods that truly promote diversity and equality of opportunity.