Not all minorities are poor, and not all poor people are minorities. Proponents of socioeconomic affirmative action do not seem to give enough consideration to these two crucial facts in their well-meaning proposition that we transition to an admissions process that places greater emphasis on the socioeconomic background of candidates, while diminishing the importance of race.
Many will agree that, in its ideal form, the process by which a school admits students would be solely meritocratic. Schools today, however, are faced with the additional need to create a student body that is diverse in order to expose students to individuals that have had different but valuable intellectual and social experiences. In their desire to create an institution that is both meritocratic and diverse, some suggest that focusing on socioeconomic affirmative action is the best solution. In reality, though, this is far from the case.
The differences in the American life experienced between races are not simply the derivatives of wealth inequality. In fact, this wealth inequality is derivative to complex historical and social influences that cannot be corrected for simply with an evaluation of one’s social and economic status that devalues race. Socioeconomic affirmative action considers metrics that encapsulate only part of the experience of being a minority in America.
This fact is served by asking whether a minority and a white person of nearly identical social status and wealth are treated the same way by society. The answer to this question is seen all around us in very tangible forms, from reports of spikes in racial animus toward the president, as documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, to reports of continued racial discrimination in the workplace.
Certainly, racial equality has taken huge steps forward since half a century ago, when civil rights were not even constitutionally guaranteed for people of all ethnicities. But America is still not a post-racial society; the social networks of the majority are easily distinguishable from the networks that minorities have access to. Even everyday associations among individuals—or whom we associate with and why—are affected by a racial dynamic that cannot be ignored.
These racial and social forces influence the experience of minorities in an academic setting, and these different experiences have translated into academic achievement gaps that cannot be explained simply by applying a socioeconomic lens. Even the evaluative standards that we use for comparing different individuals, such as the SAT, offer insufficient metrics that may inherently discriminate against people of different races as well as socioeconomic backgrounds.
This is not to say that socioeconomic status has no value in the college admissions process. But the idea that it should be a substitute to or should be emphasized to the detriment of race-based affirmative action does little to solve the problem of maintaining diversity and meritocracy in schools–and may even aggravate it. Even in a society with no wealth inequality between races, the experiences between races will be different—how we perceive each other and various historical influences make that fact unavoidable.
The current system is by no means perfect, or even acceptable. But an admissions process with a reasonable level of racial affirmative action is desirable compared to a process that does not even attempt to correct for the fact that this is not a racially egalitarian society. A more race-blind affirmative action cannot be said to represent a truly just meritocracy; it does not fulfill the prerequisite that everyone, regardless of race, have access to the same resources and networks necessary to be an attractive applicant.
Of course, if we truly desire a college admissions process that does not fall victim to the inequalities of society, then we must make a concerted effort to mitigate this societal inequality. In achieving a society that is more egalitarian, we diminish or even eliminate the need for the current unsavory but necessary practices of discrimination in college admissions.
Derrick Asiedu ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House.