Affirmative Action Equalizes
The New York Times defines affirmative action as any program that uses “racial, or occasionally gender, preferences to serve two main goals — to offset the effects of centuries of racial (or gender) injustice, and to increase diversity in a student population or workforce.” Unfortunately, as Sarah Siskind’s recent Crimson op-ed reveals, myths about affirmative action continue to permeate potentially fruitful discussions around the topic. For instance, many believe that affirmative action only helps African Americans, yet in actuality affirmative action opens up educational and career opportunities to many groups – such as women, Latinos, Native Americans, Arab Americans, among others – that have faced and continue to face discrimination.
Perhaps the most insidious myth about affirmative action is that it provides an unfair advantage to minority applicants and thus discriminates against white people. However, those who take this position seem to ignore the fact that real racial discrimination is alive and well, even in our supposedly post-racial society. A field study on hiring practices proved that job applicants with “white sounding names” were two times more successful in getting callbacks from employers compared to equally qualified applicants with “black sounding names.” These are not just abstract numbers; racial discrimination can be seen even on our own campus. Several members of Harvard Black Community Leaders describe a 2010 racially charged incident in which black law school students were assumed to be “local gangbangers” and the “wrong crowd” when bar staff shut down a party.
Racism leads not just to particular instances of prejudice and discrimination, but also to systemic injustices. Race is still a major factor in lives of college applicants, affecting their backgrounds, perspectives, and opportunities. As the ACLU notes on its website, “A centuries-long legacy of racism and sexism has not been eradicated despite the gains made during the civil rights era. Avenues of opportunity for those previously excluded remain far too narrow.” Formal, legal equality is a necessary condition for achieving true equality of opportunity, but on its own it is insufficient. For instance, even though racial segregation in schools was outlawed nearly 60 years ago, our public schools are more segregated now than they were in the late 1960s. As Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Mica Pollock points out, “Any scan of urban or suburban school districts and classrooms will demonstrate that U.S. students are still kept unequal along racialized lines; private conversations in teacher- or administrator- or student-only spaces clearly demonstrate that race does still factor into how we treat and fear and relate to each other.”
These racialized interactions, in turn, affect how students perceive their own abilities and potential. Stanford University Professor Claude Steele explains that many students of color are negatively impacted by what he terms “stereotype threat.” Since African Americans and Latinos are stereotyped as less intelligent than whites, students of these racial groups often fear that they will prove negative stereotypes right by underperforming on standardized tests. The pressure that develops from this fear causes minority students to not do their best on these exams. This does not mean that minority students are not capable of performing well on these tests, but rather that they are less likely to do so, due to the systemic prejudice in the American school system that reflects centuries of oppression.
Even disregarding stereotype threat, standardized tests are hardly the objective measure of academic potential that they are believed to be. As the New York Times pointed out in 1987 and 1993, the fact that girls get significantly better grades in high school yet have done consistently worse on the SATs since 1972 suggests that there might be a gender bias in some our most valued standardized tests. Similarly, in 2003, Roy Freedle wrote an article in the Harvard Educational Review documenting how racial bias in the SATs disadvantages black students. In 2010, professors at the Catholic University of Chile and UC Berkeley conducted a study to test Freedle’s claim; the evidence they found supported the conclusion that that the SAT, particularly the verbal portion, is biased against African Americans.
Standardized tests are just one of many questionable tools used to measure the kind of “merit” that universities are so eager to find and reward. All too often, these supposed markers of merit are reflections of race and class privilege (among other types of privilege). For instance, an applicant who is “well-rounded” displays not just her talent and dedication, but also her parents’ ability to pay for music and tennis lessons. A student may do “better” in an interview if he can present an image of “relatability,” an ambiguous quality that is highly dependent on sharing the interviewer’s racial, ethnic, cultural, and class background. Perspective believes that colleges and universities should employ both race- and class-based affirmative action in order to recognize students who have achieved despite the poverty, structural classism and/or structural racism they have faced.
Society cannot simply choose to be colorblind after years of socially constructing race. “Colorblindness” is a refusal to acknowledge, debate, and discuss the historical and cultural implications of racial inequality, and as such it is unacceptable. In fact, colorblindness may actually exacerbate racial rifts by promoting ignorance of current racial disparities. Affirmative action is one of many policies that is desperately needed to address these disparities head-on and work towards a truly equal future.