A Farewell to Affirmative Action

This February, the Supreme Court made the surprising decision to hear Fisher v. University of Texas, a case brought by a white student who claims that UT denied her admission because of her race.  This was a surprising decision because the Court had seemingly resolved the issue less than a decade ago in favor of using race as a factor in admissions decisions.  Now, the Supreme Court is effectively thrusting affirmative action issues back into the spotlight and indicating the potential that the court’s five more conservative members may be poised to overturn their earlier judgment and prohibit the use of race in admissions decisions when they begin to hear oral arguments this October.

The Supreme Court rightly should overturn this misguided decision.  Affirmative action policies do not accomplish any of the objectives furthered to justify them.  In fact, they create an unfair situation for any individual who does not fit into the rigidly defined category of a “qualified minority candidate.”

There are several rationales applicable to affirmative action programs.  One of the most important is the desire to promote diversity in higher education and to expose other students to unique thoughts and values.  However, the way in which affirmative action programs are implemented does not promote diversity at all.  Presumably, the idea behind this rationale is that people of different races automatically have different backgrounds and cultural experiences.  But diversity is not synonymous with race or ethnicity.  Sure, racial identity could be a sign of diverse backgrounds or ideas, but standing alone it does not make an individual more diverse than someone of a majority race with the exact same background.  People can have very diverse experiences without being a racial or ethnic minority.  In order to bring diversity to campus, schools should examine an applicant’s background rather than blindly making their choice based on race.

Another commendable goal of affirmative action policies is to help people who are disadvantaged, presumably due to a long history of subordination and discrimination.  However, the truth of the matter is that schools still want to accept the most qualified applicants because their rankings are at stake.  The inevitable conclusion is that many minority candidates selected for admission are those who benefitted from privileged upbringings and have been given every advantage in life.

How is that helping those who are disadvantaged?  Ultimately, all of the benefits that affirmative action policies are designed to confer upon those who are underprivileged go to privileged minorities, often to the detriment of those less fortunate within both majority and minority groups.  A much better strategy would be to base policies like affirmative action on socioeconomic status in order to give a leg up to people who actually need it.

Affirmative action policies are also defended on the grounds they counteract currently existing discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities.  Discrimination does still exist, and the argument is that affirmative action is the only assurance that many racial minorities have that they can compete and be fairly evaluated for educational opportunities.  However, the exact same goal can be achieved by preventing schools from using race or ethnicity in admissions decisions at all, a strategy which wouldn’t give an unfair advantage to some while effectively putting others at a disadvantage.  Several states, including California, ban the use of affirmative action programs and remove race from the decision to admit students to universities.  Though in practice these policies have a long way to go before they can be implemented in the manner intended, they represent an important step towards achieving real equal opportunity for all races.

The last relevant justification of affirmative action programs is the need to remedy past discrimination.  There is really no good rationale for this justification.  The idea that we are benefiting people who have suffered absolutely no discrimination because someone in their past experienced discrimination is unreasonable.  It would be different if invariably discrimination against someone’s ancestors had a tangible effect on their daily existence, but past discrimination definitely does not automatically influence their status today.  If people are suffering in any way from the historical discrimination of their ancestors, it will more likely than not show up in their socioeconomic status—a much more effective gauge for determining who merits the advantages of affirmative action.

All of these goals are laudable, but affirmative action policies directed at a generalized racial group are not the way to go about achieving them.  In fact, the ways in which affirmative action policies are implemented have several very real and unfortunate effects.  This fall, the Supreme Court has the chance to remedy the defects of affirmative action policies and, because the Court’s composition has changed in recent years, such an outcome seems likely.  The issue is not about macro-level racial compositions in universities, but is instead about ensuring individual applicants have an equal opportunity to contribute their talents and abilities.  So, while it is unquestionably appropriate for the Court to end to race-based affirmative action as we know it, we must hope they do not foreclose the option of a system that incorporates socioeconomic considerations in order to achieve the ultimate goal of equal opportunity.

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  1. While I agree that it may be productive if admissions committees take socioeconomic status into account when diversifying their student body, many amicus briefs submitted in this case by psychological associations show that racial diversification has a measurable, positive impact on both minority and non-minority students. Implicit bias is still a huge problem, both on and off campus, and increased racial diversification of students can help alleviate this problem. An implicit bias study mentioned in the amicus brief of the American Psychological Association in support of the university studied this effect. White college students were asked to provide hiring recommendations for selective campus positions. When candidates’ qualifications for the position were less obvious, white participants recommended the Black candidate significantly less often than the White candidate with exactly the same credentials. The brief also cited cognitive learning studies that compared racially homogenous and heterogeneous discussion groups. The presence of minority individuals stimulates an increase in the complexity with which students − especially members of the majority − approach a given issue. Members of homogenous groups in this study exhibited no such cognitive stimulation. Not only does increased student body diversity contribute to specific, meaningful gains in academic skills, it’s a step towards eradicating racial biases against minorities that are real, measurable and harmful.

  2. While race is not synonymous with diversity, racial diversity specifically in the university setting has been linked to many positive societal outcomes. Social Science studies show that racial diversity, often achieved through affirmative action programs, helps to encourage civic participation. This is one of the supporting arguments in the Amici Curiae brief in support of the University of Texas written by Social and Organizational Psychologists (http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/publications/supreme_court_preview/briefs/11-345_resp_amcu_sop.authcheckdam.pdf). College is not just a place of academic learning, it is a critical sphere in which students learn how to work with people from different racial backgrounds. Widespread racial segregation in the public school system on the high school and elementary level limits this benefit from occurring earlier on. White students often have little contact with minority students before college. Social science studies have shown students who went to college in a racially diverse environment are more likely to end up influencing the political structure, are prepared to resolve conflict, and are more likely to be committed to decreasing social divisions. I do not dispute that arguments can cut both ways on the issue of affirmative action but it is important to highlight the positive and invaluable impacts affirmative programs create, such as increased civic participation. This impact is not limited just to minority students; the impact extends to non-minority students and society.

  3. The main goal of college admissions should be to admit the students with the greatest academic potential. Currently, universities mainly rely on GPA and SAT scores to determine this. Research has shown, however, that these factors underestimate the academic ability of certain minority groups because of stereotype threat. Stereotype threat occurs when negative stereotypes cause students to feel increased pressure to perform well in order to disprove the stereotypes. This added pressure leads to increased anxiety, self-monitoring and other factors that take away students’ full attention from the task at hand.

    Stereotype threat is a phenomenon that has been repeatedly demonstrated in research in both the laboratory and the real world. Comparisons of African American and white students taking tests similar to the SAT have found that African Americans do substantially worse than white students when they are told that the test is evaluative of their intellectual functioning (activating a negative stereotype). The students perform equally well on the same test when they are told that it is a problem-solving task, which does not activate a negative stereotype. These results have been replicated in studies comparing white and Latino students on SAT tests and women and men on math tests. For a more detailed description of the research see the Amici Curiae Brief in support of the University of Texas by Experimental Psychologists. Based on this research, universities still need to take race into account if they want to admit students with the greatest academic potential.

  4. The author of this article seems to ignore the fact that the University of Texas’s scheme is not one of racial quotas, but rather a holistic admissions process that considers race as ONE factor in deciding how an applicant can contribute to the diversity of the school. Race is not given more points than another factor in the achievement assessment. I personally have been told that I have gotten into schools just because I checked Hispanic on my application. It is unfair to assume that because race is one factor in the scheme, all minority students must have been given an unfair advantage in the admissions process. This author’s words sound like so many who do not look to the other factors that I, like so many other minorities, might bring to a community. She assumes that race consideration means that applicants are admitted solely based on their race. This point of view continues to hurt accomplished people who are belittled by these arguments. All minorities continue to face that extra step of proving that they are not a product of affirmative action. This post proves that affirmative action is still necessary, as all minorities still deserve the respect that our background will provide a voice against viewpoints like these that make generalized assumptions about minority applicants.

    • Yes, race may be just ONE factor, yet it has been proven to be an extremely weighty factor. Furthermore, I don’t think that this author was saying that “all” minority students have been given an unfair advantage. However, studies have shown that there are a large portion of minority students that have been chosen over majority students, despite their qualifications. This is not a generalized assumption–it is one person’s opinion, which has been grounded in court cases and statistics, about a subject that is clearly controversial.

      Affirmative action is, in theory, a positive program. Yet, I wonder how often it is applied for the right reasons–and not just to give the impression of racial equality.

      I agree that admissions committees should use a system that incorporates socioeconomic considerations. However, I would hope that a student would be admitted to a university based on skill alone, despite race and economic background. This, I believe, is too idealistic.

  5. Frances’ reply suffers from the same unsupported statements as Ms. Schmidt’s entire post. Just where has the consideration of race been proven to be “an extremely weighty factor”? Are they still teaching Evidence and Bluebooking at Cornell Law? Which studies is Frances referring to when she claims that minority candidates were chosen over qualified majority candidates? Where are these court cases and statistics?

    I understand that the commentary section of a blog is hardly equivalent with that of a law review publication and therefore citations are not absolutely necessary to support one’s position. Yet with a topic of this nature being so controversial, it would seem important to provide reliable support for otherwise broad and sweeping generalizations. Frances, you are no less guilty of this. Please note that your own assertions: you suggest that minority candidates have been chosen over majority candidates, “despite their qualifications.” You just assigned intellectual potential solely to the latter and actively avoided crediting it to the former.

    I would agree with Frances on one point, however: I, too, don’t believe Ms. Schmidt was suggesting that all minority candidates were given an unfair advantage. Schmidt is clear in stating her belief that it is minority candidates of “privileged upbringings” who are taking advantage of Affirmative Action. Schmidt is suggesting that minority candidates from privileged backgrounds are already qualified for admissions, but that they are taking advantage of Affirmative Action policies to gain admission over their equally qualified counterparts. The irony is that the implicit message here is also discriminatory: Schmidt posits that only minorities from privileged backgrounds are qualified. In essence, she argues that minorities from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds are not taking advantage of Affirmative Action because (wait for it)…they are unqualified.

    The utilization of race based quotas has been eradicated in admissions programs under Bakke (438 U.S. 265). It is time that scholars stop using the quota argument irresponsibly. As a Mexican-American, I don’t recall sitting down for the LSAT, checking off “Latino” and receiving a letter in the mail telling me my seat was reserved in law school for no other reason than my skin color. Please.

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