RE: Affirmative Action

affirmative action image-by Summer Peyton- Before I craft my response to last issue’s article “Affirmative Action: Benign Intention, Unjust Execution,” I should define affirmative action. Affirmative action is the practice favoring those who tend to suffer from discrimination, namely historically excluded groups such as women and racial minorities. Often affirmative action is used in the context of both employment and education, but for the purposes of this piece I will focus on its role in education, specifically the college process.

Race-based affirmative action does not operate, as the anonymous author suggests, on the assumption that “race is a determinant of one’s socioeconomic status”. The practice operates on the understanding that certain groups have been disadvantaged based on race, which has consequently encouraged the creation of experiences and cultures different from those of the dominant race, white. As a student of color in a predominantly white environment, I believe this is true, as I witness culture-driven differences on a day-to-day basis.

Perhaps the author’s biggest fallacy is the perceived relationship between race and socioeconomic status in the college process. Socioeconomic status does not hide behind race as the author suggests, but is communicated through the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and similar forms. Race is not a backdoor to socioeconomic status and, therefore, is not a more “direct and accurate” way to identify disadvantaged students–merely a different one that caters more to a historical disadvantage than to an economic one.

Indeed, I agree with the author on the idea that race and socioeconomic class are connected, but do I believe we should then abandon race-based affirmative action in favor of a class-based alternative altogether? Absolutely not. The two identifiers are connected, not interchangeable. To abandon the race-based method is to fall victim to the fiction that we do not live in a pigmentocracy. In reality, skin color can speak louder than the car one drives, the sport one plays, and the way one forms one’s sentences. The treatment of individuals of color in America’s past has left an indelible mark on the interactions among people today.

“We would like to believe that racial differences do not still separate us,” said Channing Frick ‘14, “but the fact is there is still a fair amount of segregation. Affirmative action improves integration while creating a more diverse learning environment.” Frick’s peers agree. “As a white student from a privileged background I am obviously not a major candidate for affirmative action,” remarked senior Georgia Williams, “but I’m so lucky to have a place where I’m surrounded by people from all races and backgrounds. [Racial diversity] has enriched my high school experience by adding voices that I never would have heard 50 years ago.”

Curiously, 50 years ago Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was not opposed to affirmative action efforts as the anonymous author implied. In Dr. King’s novel Why We Can’t Wait, published in 1964, he writes, “It is a simple matter of justice in America in dealing creatively with the task of raising the Negro from backwardness should also be rescuing a large stratum of the forgotten white poor.” Here “also” is crucial to what many envision as an affirmative action ideal: a balance between race-based and class-based efforts.

Abandoning one type of selection in favor of another does not promote a more diverse environment; it only changes the cross section of diversity in that environment. As Shea Necheles puts it, “I want a classroom filled with racial and socioeconomic diversity as well as ideological and religious diversity.” Yet not all Winsor students hold all diversities to the same importance; some lean towards an emphasis on socioeconomic status like the author does. Caroline Ognibene ’14 believes affirmative action “would better serve its purpose if organized by financial class,” while Sophie Cyker ’14 noted that location is key. “I think my personal experience is probably a lot more similar to an African-American student who grew up in Wellesley than it is to a white student who grew up in Southie and attends a Boston Public School.”

        While few would argue against the idea that one’s race is unchanging or “beyond an applicant’s control,” there are an increasing number of people who would argue that one’s socioeconomic class is beyond the individual’s control as well. Just ask any of Julian Braxton’s students from his course “The Politics of Identity,” and we will tell you the challenge in assuming that class-based affirmative action gracefully coincides with the meritocracy the author dotes upon. We live in a country where a child raised in the bottom fifth has a mere 10 percent chance of rising to the top fifth in adulthood. The cycle of poverty is too prevalent in this country to assert that socioeconomic status is any better a tool than race when it comes to affirmative efforts. We cannot argue that race-based affirmative action should be disposed of in favor of class-based when one’s socioeconomic status is nearly as static as one’s race.

And what about legacies? Shea Necheles ’14 noted that a legacy is a title “that you are born with and don’t necessarily earn, but gives advantages in the admissions process.” It seems the author, given his disapproval of race-focused affirmative action, would also oppose preferences toward legacies in the college process, though they are ubiquitous given the independent schools we attend. Emily Stack ’14 shared, “[In a private school setting,] I am more likely to assume a student is here based on her parents’ financial generosity than I am to assume a student got in based on her being a racial minority.” So perhaps the idea that “many people assume underrepresented minorities have been accepted based on their race, not on their achievements” is a sentiment on the decline anyway.

Whether you oppose race-based affirmative action in favor of a class-based alternative as the author does or advocate for a balanced system involving both as I do, it is imperative to remember that we are complex individuals in the college process. “They are not taking you because of this one thing,” reminded Gabriella Cramer ’14. “You have to be able to do the work and be a good fit overall.” Sure, your ethnic makeup and family’s socioeconomic status can influence where you fall on an admissions list, but this influence is minimal and no single quality can admit an applicant.

There is no question why the Supreme Court is often split on cases regarding affirmative action; the practice is irrefutably imperfect. Though, if implemented with both race and socioeconomic focuses in academic settings, its flaws would be significantly minimized.

Image from Washington Post