The Supreme Court is in the midst of hearing a suit against the University of Texas at Austin by Abigail Fisher. She maintains she was the victim of an admissions process that elevates skin color above academic qualifications and gives unfair advantage to minorities.
But who counts as a “minority” in affirmative action? Unfortunately for Ms. Fisher, adorable gingers are not considered a minority (despite red hair occurring in only 1-2 percent of the world population). So clearly, not just any minority can qualify as a “minority.”
Perhaps affirmative action is meant to help those who have historically been discriminated against. It would be hard to overlook women and Jews when considering historical punching bags. However, women and Jews are indeed overlooked in the affirmative action policies of most schools.
Perhaps affirmative action attempts to help those groups heavily correlated with lower incomes. One of the strongest correlations with lower incomes is held by those with lower centers of gravity. As if short people didn’t have it bad enough: being refused at roller coasters, being unable to stand in the shallow end of pools, and now, being denied affirmative action. At least they don’t have to stand in the back for pictures.
Finally, what about intellect? Perhaps our universities are in dire need of diversity of intelligence. Counter to most stereotypes, ugliness is highly correlated with poor intellectual performance by traditional measures, though I don’t know how many qualified applicants will be willing to put that down on their application.
Race-based affirmative action attempts to target these groups: the discriminated against, the poor, and those with unique experiences and intellectual merits. However, affirmative action is fundamentally flawed because it uses race instead of targeting these groups themselves. Less academically qualified applicants should be treated as such, unless they come from poorer households and therefore do not have access to the same amount of resources as other applicants. However, this would be class-based affirmative action, not race-based.
Helping those with primarily low academic qualifications into primarily academic institutions makes as much sense as helping the visually impaired become pilots. How would you feel if you were assured before going into surgery that your surgeon was the beneficiary of affirmative action in medical school? I do not see why higher academic institutions should lower their standards for admission.
In a way, I am the product of a sort of affirmative action, and it takes a terrible psychological toll. My father went to Harvard College, which makes me a legacy. I am kept up at night by the thought that simply because my father has attended and donated to the University, I might have taken the spot of a more qualified applicant. My name is not exactly “Sarah Wigglesworth Hurlbut Coop,” but I am still a legacy, and the thought of its bearing on my admission is somewhat terrifying.
This is not a partisan issue. Many Democrats have, in confidence, heartily agreed with my position. Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York City, has flatly denied proposals for affirmative action in the competitive application process for elite public high schools: “You pass the test, you get the highest score, you get into the school—no matter what your ethnicity, no matter what your economic background is.” Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts stated it succinctly in a decision concerning affirmative action: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
The libertarian in me gags at the thought of infringing a private institution’s selection criteria, but the aspiring lawyer in me points to the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits race-based discrimination. This amendment has since been somewhat modified with the 2003 Supreme Court case upholding the University of Michigan’s use of affirmative action, Grutter v. Bollinger. In sum, the status of affirmative action has been in something of a legal flux. In the current case of Fisher v. University of Texas, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan recused herself, so a tie is possible, which would favor the defendant and uphold the status quo of legal affirmative action.
Even if affirmative action rights the injustices of widespread discrimination, as proponents allege, what about the beneficiaries down the line? As Supreme Justice Clarence Thomas argued, employers will likely regard a minority candidate with greater skepticism if their alma mater engaged in affirmative action. This wouldn’t be racism—it would be simple logic—and that is what makes it all the more nefarious. I’m not saying racism doesn’t exist. Racism persists, despite over a century of incredible progress, but affirmative action imbeds racism in the lives of future generations.
Sarah R. Siskind ’14 is a government concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.