The Purpose of Affirmative Action
How has the policy evolved over the years and what should we do to navigate through the complicated controversy that currently surrounds it?
Half Japanese, half Japanese-American. Female. Upper middle class.
There are multiple characteristics that we are born with, or traits that define us apart from personality - in other words, what forms an identity. The above are some of mine. These characteristics inevitably shape the experiences we have, both positively and negatively. In order to even out the experiences, there are measures in place that aim to influence opportunity - namely, affirmative action. The result of this has been a creation of seemingly arbitrary laws like Asian Americans are at a disadvantage when it comes to educational opportunities or women have greater chances of getting into STEM programs which have led to controversies. Somewhere in these controversies, ranging from early reverse racism cases like California v. Bakke to the recent Harvard lawsuit, we have lost the meaning of affirmative action.
Originally, affirmative action was created as a set of laws and policies that began in the sixties, to correct the effects of systematic oppression against minorities and women. In the words of president Johnson, its motive was as follows: “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race, and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair”.
With respect to education, affirmative action meant setting goals to increase educational opportunities for various minorities (particularly African Americans) which they have historically been denied. The diversity that affirmative action brought to schools was a positive byproduct that enhanced the experience of all students. However affirmative action today has completely diverged from this original purpose.
As affirmative action was put to practice, it was argued as unfair through numerous lawsuits including California v. Bakke. In order to make affirmative action “fair” its meaning was shifted to creating diverse communities rather than directly addressing racism. To create and maintain diversity, colleges have general limits for the size of each racial group on campus. Asian Americans who often form the majority of top scorers among college applicants are cut off due to those limits and ignored of their academic accomplishments, becoming the victims of affirmative action as evident by the Harvard University case and numerous other universities openly admitting to bias against Asian Americans.
Asian Americans have not been subject to the same level of oppression as African Americans, so they may not need affirmative action as much as African Americans do. However, it simply does not make sense for affirmative action to be used against a minority group as it contradicts its original purpose.
Moreover, as diversity became the purpose of affirmative action, empowering minorities became its byproduct. In the words of Ta Nehisi Coates, affirmative action only “tangentially relates to the specific problems of black people” which it was originally created to address (1).
Legacy admissions are already a form of affirmative action for white families which are more likely to have multiple generations of college educated family members. Students for Fair Admissions - an anti-affirmative action group released studies of Harvard admissions statistics which exposed that legacy applicants were five times as likely to be admitted than non legacy applicants and that more than 21.5% of white students were legacy applicants whereas the number was lower than 7% for other minority groups such as Asian Americans, Hispanics, and African Americans (2).
However, on top of legacy admissions, competition with Asian American students allows affirmative action to be used to the advantage of the majority as well. According to research by Princeton University, in order to get into elite schools, Asian Americans, on average, need to score 140 points higher than white Americans (when all other things are equal). Additionally, according to the Washington Post, “64 elite schools — including Brown, Amherst and Wesleyan — made it harder for girls than for boys to get in” (3). Affirmative action is being used to put minorities and women who have historically faced discrimination and still do, at a disadvantage, and the people who have not faced oppression or perhaps even set up the oppressive systems at an advantage - in the name of diversity.
Creating a diverse community is certainly an important goal for colleges but using affirmative action, especially against a minority, is not the means to achieve it. The twisted policy we have now that completely contradicts its original purpose can no longer be called affirmative action.
Yet, many continue to confuse the original purpose of affirmative action with what it is currently. In response to the California Senate Constitutional Amendment No. 5 that considers the elimination of California Proposition 209 - a ban on the use of race, sex, and ethnicity in college admissions, an Asian American stated “I didn’t think that the U.S. could have such an unfair bill” (4). It is not the bill that is unfair, but how America alters and uses the bill and other affirmative action related policies.
Confusion exists on the other end as well. Edward Blum who filed the Fisher v. Texas lawsuit where a white student claimed she was rejected by the University of of Texas due to no other factor than race, filed the lawsuit against Harvard in an attempt to use Asian Americans in his fight against affirmative action. DePaul professor Sumi Cho terms the white Americans using Asian Americans to make their case against affirmative action as “racial mascoting” (5).
Additionally, the existence of an anti-affirmative action group criticizing the racial discrimination of Harvard’s affirmative action measures as mentioned before shows the confusion that surrounds the theory and practice of affirmative action. Opposing the way a certain school enforces affirmative action should not automatically lead to opposing the policy of affirmative action. Particularly, Asian Americans should not have to fight against a policy made to benefit minorities like them. As victims of racism, it is illogical for them to side with the proponents of “reverse racism”.
The fight against affirmative action must be shifted from the policy itself, to the ignorance and racism in America that tries to tailor affirmative action to suit the interests of the majority. After all, compensation of past and continuing oppression is what affirmative action was created for.
What happens if we extend the discussion from race to include one that speaks to us here at Seisen - gender. While most of the tension concerning affirmative action has been about race related issues, gender is another area subject to affirmative action policies.
Women and minorities have had significantly different experiences with discrimination. For one, the fight for gender equality began much earlier than racial equality. Hence, while women continue to suffer from sexism, it is generally less apparent today than racism. Trends in socioeconomic levels of racial groups are fairly obvious, whereas for women it is difficult to generalize, especially as they make up half of the population.
Consequently, the affirmative action policies that address the issues of the two groups differ. In contrast to race-based affirmative action, the idea of compensating for past wrongs is a minor factor in affirmative action for women. It essentially only applies in the cases where women are a minority, that is, women applying into STEM programs - especially physics and engineering.
As a result, affirmative action is again, used to encourage diversity rather than address the fundamental issues. Making a conscious effort to consider women for STEM programs does indeed, give women who are already interested in those fields an opportunity to pursue them which previous generations have been denied. Still, they do not eliminate the institutional sexism and societal pressures that steer the vast majority away from those fields or make it difficult for interested women to succeed in them. These forces are notorious in STEM companies, an example being James Damore’s Google Memo in which a Google employee claimed that Google was discriminating against men in order to allow women who are biologically less suited for tech jobs, to work (6). Lack of interest in physics is even apparent here at Seisen, although it is arguable whether it is the result of societal pressures.
Affirmative action for women should therefore focus on making fields like STEM that have previously been denied to women, more accessible and to eliminate societal pressures and sexism that deters them from those fields rather than simply increasing the number of women in those fields.
So far we have focused on affirmative action policies based on the categories of race and gender, under the assumption that people in those categories have had similar experiences of discrimination. However the reality is that there exist variations in the experiences of racial minorities and women. Therefore, some are suggesting that affirmative action ought to be based on socioeconomic class. A proponent of this was Martin Luther King who pushed for a Bill of Rights for the disadvantaged of all races (7).
Discrimination does indeed manifest itself in levels of economic success. Currently, being economically disadvantaged in America is seven times as detrimental to high student achievement as race (8). Additionally, income levels are one major measure of inequality among genders and races.
According to a 2016 poll, while 63% of Americans are opposed to race based affirmative action in schools, 61% agree with the consideration of the economic circumstances of a family (9). Hence, systematically assessing who lacks opportunities using socioeconomic levels earns a greater amount of approval from the American population than using categories like race or gender which generalize the experiences of everyone who belongs to those categories.
However socioeconomic class is an incomplete measure to assess inequality. Economic inequality does not show racial and gender inequality in its entirety as economic measures ignores history and experience. For example, a male and a female worker may have the same income level, but diverging experiences in order to earn that income. The woman may have had to work harder to prove herself against male colleagues or endure discouraging experiences. In the words of Nancy Hopkins a biology professor at MIT, “women make it by overcoming bias but often at a high cost and probably by not advancing to their full potential” (10). The same applies to minorities. Therefore, we cannot assume that economic inequality is entirely representative of racial or gender inequality.
Additionally, focusing on economic inequality, again, muddles the purpose of affirmative action - trying to level the playing field for groups that have had a history of discrimination. What initially led to inequality was not capitalism per se, but the categories of race and sex and therefore, it does not make sense to ignore those categories when trying to combat inequality resulting from them.
Creating a fair environment does not necessarily mean everyone is subject to the same forces. America has a history of inequality, and that must first be fixed and compensated for. This is what affirmative action was created to address - to level the playing field.
Compensating and fixing inequality is not as simple as shifting people around using quotes and diversity goals. While increasing the number of women or minorities in certain fields and positions increase opportunities that minorities and women have previously been denied, it is useless without addressing the fundamental problems. Diversity should be regarded as the end goal of a long process of affirmative action. Starting with quotas and diversity goals only causes change on a surface level, especially if the purpose is to enhance the experience of the majority.
Our current affirmative action policies must be enforced in conjunction with what Nancy Hopkins an MIT biology professor, terms Affirmative Effort - “taking action to overcome discrimination, including unconscious bias”, in other words, change on the side of the majority (11).
In a time when controversies on affirmative action policies are often seen in the news, we must remember that the original purpose of affirmative action is not simply to temporarily shift people around to fill quotas and achieve diversity goals, but to compensate for and eradicate discrimination which involves actions to boost the positions of minorities and women, as well as actions to address the ignorance of the majority.
On a final note, throughout this article, particularly in the last paragraph, my use of “majority” and “minority” makes the categories sound as though they are separate and mutually exclusive when they are not. I myself, am part of two typically disadvantaged groups: Asian-American and a woman interested in STEM, and one advantaged group: the upper middle class. I have had experiences of being treated differently as an Asian American in America and as a girl interested in physics, finding myself in male dominated summer courses. Yet, I have had the luxury of going to an all girls international school in Japan, where I have been living comfortably, mostly shielded among fellow international girls.
A rising trend in social activism is the notion of intersectionality - the need to look at the person and their experiences, rather than the categories we put them into. In light of this trend, we need to assess our own experiences. A step towards solving any social issue is to better understand them. Where we lack in knowledge, we should go out and interact with those of diverging experiences to learn more about them. Where we feel others lack in knowledge, we should make an effort to share some insight.
If anyone has any comments or questions about this article, please talk to me!
Thank you to Jenny and Nene!
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