HPRgument Blog — December 11, 2010 1:45 am

Weighing In: Race-Based Affirmative Action is Failing Our Poorest Students


Sam Barr has responded to my column in last Wednesday’s Crimson with an analysis that ultimately comes out in favor of race-based affirmative action. While I thank Sam for his thoughtful comments on the article, I would like to reply to some of his criticisms and clarify certain aspects of my argument, which suggested that class-based affirmative action should replace race-based systems in the college admissions process.

First, Sam argues that the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, which ended segregation in public schools, was based on segregation’s role “in a society-wide system of racial subjugation” rather than on the principle of color-blindness. Yet this interpretation ignores the explicit statements of the plaintiffs in the case. In their brief to the Court, the Brown appellants noted their “dedicated belief” that “the Constitution is color blind”; this belief, in turn, implied that “[t]he Fourteenth Amendment precludes a state from imposing distinctions or classifications based upon race and color alone.” In this regard, the plaintiffs justified their integrationist position by appealing to a color-blind Constitution.

But the plaintiffs’ belief in color-blindness does not necessarily mean that the Court’s final ruling relied on this belief. Indeed, Warren’s opinion in Brown I (the decision which outlawed segregation itself) references segregation’s role in subjugating blacks without making explicit mention of color-blindness. However, the Court’s decision on the means for implementing desegregation (Brown II) directly adopts the rhetoric of color-blindness: Administrators were called upon to “achieve a system of determining admission to the public schools on a nonracial basis.” The identity of the subjugated race itself was not considered; the standard of completely nonracial or color-blind admissions was the one upheld by the Court’s ruling and demanded of local school districts.

More important than this attempt to rescue the legacy of Brown, however, is an attempt to rescue class-based affirmative action from some of the most prevalent misunderstandings surrounding it. For example, Sam criticizes my suggestion that the use of race as one factor in a holistic admissions decision still results in the rejection of qualified applicants based solely on their race; he argues that subtle forms of societal discrimination create an unequal playing field for minority applicants, and this social injustice — rather than any system of college admissions — is the true mechanism by which qualified applicants are excluded from top colleges.

Nonetheless, the existence of societal discrimination, while undesirable and harmful, does not justify a corresponding form of discrimination (“reverse discrimination”) in college admissions.  If race-based affirmative action corrected for social prejudices against minorities without affecting other applicants’ chances of admission, then Sam’s position would be tenable; however, since this is not the case — since every decision to admit a less-qualified minority applicant implies a corresponding decision to reject another qualified applicant — the rights of both the accepted and rejected students must be considered.

In other words, Sam is right to point to the social discrimination faced by minority students, and every form of legislation that moves toward eliminating this discrimination is a step in the right direction. However, the means used to correct for societal prejudices cannot penalize guiltless citizens simply for their membership in a given race; affirmative action policies do just this when they use race as a factor to distinguish between two applications with comparable qualifications.  Ironically, race-based affirmative action is often justified because it corrects for societal disadvantages suffered by minority citizens because of the color of their skin; however, if the means of correcting for these disadvantages create new disadvantages for some college applicants simply because of their skin tone, the problem is reframed rather than resolved. The race of the rejected students changes, but the problem of defining students solely by their membership in a given race does not.

Which leads to Sam’s final, and potentially most damning, criticism of my argument: If one of my objections to race-based affirmative action involves its tendency to consign applicants “to particular races assumed to define their identities,” how can systems of class-based affirmative action that classify individuals based on their socioeconomic status be justified?  What is more offensive about defining students by their wealth than defining them by their race? My original article articulates my response: “The problem isn’t that students are being defined by one of their traits (race); it’s that the trait used to define them is an irrelevant one in evaluating their educational opportunities.”

In particular, socioeconomic status provides a more effective measure for determining differences in school opportunities.  For example, while the SAT scores of black and white students differ by little more than 50 points, the scores of students from the highest and lowest socioeconomic groupings diverge by nearly 400 points. Race-based affirmative action policies fail to account for these socioeconomic distinctions, since most of the minority students they admit come from middle- or upper-class homes. As Derek Bok and William Bowen noted in The Shape of the River, their definitive study on affirmative action, 86% of black students at the top 28 U.S. colleges emerge from middle- or upper-middle-class backgrounds. And as a 2004 Century Foundation study noted, 74% of students at 146 top American universities (the overwhelming majority of which employ race-based affirmative action) come from the highest socioeconomic quartile, while only 3% come from the lowest. At some schools, like the University of Michigan (whose race-based affirmative action system for law school admissions was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2003), more students come from families with incomes over $200,000 than from families with incomes less than $53,000, the U.S. median.

Sam writes that if race-based affirmative action actually provides benefits mostly to middle- and upper-class students — “students who probably aren’t nearly as vulnerable to segregation, foreclosure, unemployment, educational inequality, and other social disadvantages” — then he is “completely open to revising [his] view on race-based affirmative action, so long as it is replaced by class-based affirmative action.” The facts on race-based affirmative action are in, and they confirm that it primarily benefits minority students from the highest socioeconomic classes. Class-based affirmative action represents the best means of distributing these benefits more equally across socioeconomic groupings, and it thus provides the best substitute for race-based affirmative action moving forward.

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