In political debate, it is generally quite significant when one party veers from the heart of a subject to focus instead on tangential issues. A tendency for a person to stray from the prevailing idea in a discussion is more often than not a sign that there is something fundamentally wrong with that person’s argument. Nowhere is this more clear than in the debate unfolding in our nation over the future of affirmative action.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would once again take up the issue of whether the practice of giving admissions advantages to underrepresented minority groups, there have been a plethora of articles written calling attention to the fact that race is but one of many factors considered in college admissions that have a somewhat tenuous link to whether a person actually deserves admission to a given school. It cannot be denied that a person’s family, alumni connections, athletic abilities and wealth can all be said to perhaps play a greater role in admissions decisions then they ought to, particularly when competition at the nation’s most selective schools is so cutthroat and, at times, seemingly arbitrary.
Nevertheless, a large number of people seem to be under the very misguided impression that these somewhat dubious admissions criteria excuse a far more dangerous one. Supporters of affirmative action can call as much attention as they would like to what is clearly an imperfect process for assigning slots in colleges, businesses, and various other aspects of society. The fact will still remain that to award a man or woman any advantage or disadvantage based simply on their ethnicity amounts to racial discrimination, and as such it must be explicitly condemned as the damaging practice that it is. The Bakke case of 1978 remains a dark stain on American legal history, for although few seem willing to say so, it amounted to a decision whereby racial discrimination was found to be acceptable, so long as it was done subtly, carefully, and with good intentions. The Supreme Court has the opportunity to show true foresight by striking down the practice in the two University of Michigan cases that come before them.
There is no question that underprivileged minority groups in this country do not, on the whole, have access to education and college preparation that is on par with that of the white majority. Affirmative action, some would say, is a needed way of leveling the playing field so that the inequities inherent in public education and in economics do not hold back minority groups from attending college. The problem is that affirmative action is rarely if ever directly tied to socioeconomic struggles. There is nothing wrong with bestowing an admission advantage on someone who has come from difficult circumstances, worked diligently, made the most of what he was given, and yet may still pale when strictly compared with a privileged upper-class student who had access to the finest schools and resources in the country. It boggles the mind, however, that we as a society can allow a system to exist in which an affluent, privileged black student who has come from one of the nation’s most prestigious prep schools might be given a 20-point advantage over a poor white student who has worked incredibly hard to attain high marks at a third-rate public high school. I am not so foolish as to fail to realize that the situation I described is the exception and not the rule, and that the sad history of our nation’s race relations ensures that my anecdote is far more likely to occur the other way around. This does not change the fact that what I described can happen, does happen, and is a direct affront to all of the rules of racial equality that we as a society have arrived at far too late in our history.
American universities justify their adoption of racial preferences on the grounds that they will, in general, help those of lower socioeconomic standing, yet there is no reason why admissions protocol cannot be tailored to a more direct examination of a student’s life circumstances. It may be more time consuming, and logistically far more difficult, but this does not make it any less right. Admissions officers can and should conduct a thorough evaluation not only of what their applicants have achieved, but of how they achieved it. This can and should include a person’s financial and educational circumstances, the quality of his character, and his ability to overcome adversity, but it must never be allowed to include race. There is no reason why the “merit” that is the basis for making admissions decisions cannot be extended to include a person’s determination and drive to succeed in circumstances that were not ideal. Nevertheless, the second that we directly or indirectly suggest that “merit” also has something to do with a person’s skin color or ethnicity, we violate a tenet of our Constitution that arrived far too late, but which must be protected at all costs, no matter how often its opponents would have us veer away from a question that has only one answer.
Alexander Goot is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College.