Education shouldn’t be about race. Ideally, education would be about providing every student with an equal opportunity to succeed in their lives; and thus, the acceptance of a student into a university would be based solely on their merit. However, we live in a world of harsh realities, not one of perfect endings. Students from minority groups would largely be disadvantaged in a system based purely on merit, as many face difficult economic conditions and are therefore unable to build and display the talents they may possess.
To counteract this, many schools in the United States utilize controversial affirmative action policies. The use of these practices has continually been a debatable and nuanced topic with no clear right answer. Having once again risen to prominence due to a statement by the Trump administration, it is critical to recognize the important role affirmative action plays in the American education system; and that, despite its flaws, this system has its place in even the most prestigious of universities.
Affirmative action, also known as race-conscious admissions, is defined as “an active effort to improve the employment or educational opportunities of members of minority groups and women,” by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Schools are not allowed to maintain quotas regarding the race of their students; however, it can be viewed as part of a whole impression of an applicant. Thus, affirmative action has historically been a powerful tool used to combat cases of systemic racism, and continues to be effective against the many problems minorities still face, at least within the education system.
Advocates of affirmative action will point to the lower average wages earned by women and high unemployment rates amongst black citizens as proofs of institutional discrimination today, and as a cause to maintain the practices of affirmative action in universities to aid disadvantaged students.
Furthermore, the system fosters a diverse environment on university campuses throughout the United States. It is in these situations that students develop best.
According to an article by ThinkProgress, conversations with peers from different racial groups result in “lower racial bias among students, promote civic engagement later in life, and foster better problem-solving skills and critical thinking skills.” The use of affirmative action also indirectly impacts the quality of education for students, as being part of a diverse peer group has been shown to promote feelings of safety, creativity, and enables students to concentrate. It is also in these environments that students can learn to be more tolerant of others despite whatever differences there may be between them and their classmates.
Even though there are many ways in which affirmative action positively impacts students, it has recently come under fire from the Justice Department of the Trump administration, who stated they will be examining “intentional race-based discrimination” by universities when considering student applications. This is not the first time these practices have come under fire. Opponents describe the manner in which it disadvantages groups such as Asian citizens as being identical to the institutional racism it tries to prevent.
In locations where affirmative action is banned, such as California, Asian students generally form a larger portion of student bodies in top universities compared to practitioners of race-conscious admissions such as Harvard. (around a third of the student body in the University of California compared to around 18% at Harvard) There have been detailed cases, such as that of Austin Jia, that have been used to illustrate what seems to be blatant discrimination.
He was undeniable extremely qualified, as he owned both a high G.P.A. and nearly perfect SAT score, and participated in activities such as debate teams, tennis, and the state orchestra, yet was rejected by every Ivy League school he applied to, despite classmates with lower scores – but of a different race – being admitted.
However, it has been found that many Asian students still benefit from the system, as many groups such as Bangladeshi and Cambodian students are underrepresented in high education. Many of these groups may also experience the same disadvantages as black and Latino students generally face. As a matter of fact, polls seem to indicate that Asian-Americans tend to support affirmative action.
Many, such as Emily Choi, are still able to enroll in top schools such as Harvard, so the system is not impossible to overcome. Regarding the topic, she says, “I firmly believe in affirmative action. The diversity at Harvard has been key to my learning, and I think that if there weren’t so many people of different backgrounds, I wouldn’t be forced to think about things in new ways.” Even Austin Jia is slowly beginning to accept that the schools’ refusals of his application may not have been entirely based on race.
These opinions seem to have continuously been supported by courts that have ruled in favor of affirmative action. Most recently, in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas in 2016, the Supreme Court upheld race-conscious admission policies in the state of Texas. In the case of Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003, the Supreme Court stated that race could be considered in university applications, as long as it was included in a more complete overview of the student. In both cases, the Supreme Court has chosen to side with maintaining a diverse education system and with providing all students with an equal opportunity to succeed.
Affirmative action has always been and will continue to be, an intensely debated topic. Evidently, the system is flawed, and there be cases where a more capable student is omitted from a school based on their race. But undeniably, affirmative also promotes an environment where learning is easier and everyone is valued. It may also be the best option available for the American education system; as without it, the future may become dominated by Asian and white students with little hope for largely disadvantaged minority students.
In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need a system of race-conscious policies to determine which students may be admitted into the most prestigious schools. However, in our world, a world of nuances, socioeconomic disparity, and occasionally lack of opportunity, it becomes clear that, at least for now, affirmative action deserves to stay.