There are few topics as uncomfortable, as ambitiously unsexy and as powerful as a means to clear a room as affirmative action. But it’s also a tough subject to avoid, and one that demands discussion if we should want to meaningfully call ourselves a nation built on opportunity.
The comedian Steve Martin once joked, “I started out at the bottom. I was a poor black child.” I, however, was not; I’m white, my mom and dad are an accountant and a doctor, respectively and the comfort I was granted by both my parents’ unbelievably hard work and the systemic advantages that made their path possible defined my upbringing. I went to an absurdly expensive private school where absurdly rich kids drove absurdly nice cars, one so unsettlingly ostentatious that its prom was featured in Time magazine as an example of new manifestation of income inequality in the 21st century.
But that high school was also, without any doubt in my mind, the single largest reason I got into Stanford. Its small classes allowed me to develop personal relationships with my teachers, its dedicated guidance staff were on hand day and night to comment on revisions to my college application essays, and the general air of high expectations set the tone for four years of neurotic attention to grades and scores. But my 3.9 at Dwight-Englewood, a school which actively helped me develop as a person, is nothing next to an ostensibly much worse GPA from a high school in south central Los Angeles, where a student is likely to be dealing with any number of profoundly debilitating life circumstances.
This is, of course, exactly what my parents aimed for by sending me to such a school, and I mean that without any vitriol. They wanted the absolute best for me, and they got it. In the face of such standard liberal tropes about self-awareness and the relativity of what constitute “good grades,” though, it’s easy to lose sight of the profound questions this type of situation raises.
What does it mean, for example, to have a high level of human capital? In a piece from 2013, David Sacks and Peter Thiel wrote, “The sole criterion in finding the members of [a Stanford] class and in defining “merit” should be individual achievement … But race and ethnicity … do not have a place on this list; these are traits, not achievements.” Indeed, Stanford admissions officers should shoot only to make the best, most talented and most interesting class possible each year. Putting aside the extent to which diversity is necessarily inherent in the definition of “interesting,” though, it stands that ignoring applicants’ background (including consideration of their race alongside acknowledgment of their socioeconomic circumstances, their familial situation and the general hardships they have had to face in life) is to not fully conceptualize the individual “merit” Sacks and Thiel speak of. The duo want only to take the applicants with the most readily available and visible human capital, not realizing that others of less fortune likely have the potential to far surpass their more carefully groomed peers. Indeed, the only way to be able to know that is through consideration of one’s complete background.
What is it, then, that “affirmative action” means? Merriam-Webster defines it broadly as “the practice of improving the educational and job opportunities of … groups that have not been treated fairly in the past,” and Stanford answers the question of whether it engages in the practice by saying only, “We review all applications with a sensitive awareness to the applicant’s personal experiences, family background and potential to add to the rich and dynamic texture of our campus.” Indeed, there are no evil quotas here. There are no image-obsessed administrative bean counters carefully calculating whether the school has reached some conceptually pleasing mass of underprivileged students. Nobody is proposing the institution of a quota system; I’ll be the first one to agree, as the Supreme Court did in the 2003 Gratz v. Bollinger ruling that deemed such systems unconstitutional, that such a program would go too far.
But that’s fundamentally not what we’re dealing with here. Instead, what we do have is a school meaningfully trying to get a holistic sense of the individual applicant, viewing race as a contextualizing factor only to the extent (though a necessarily profound one) that it has shaped the applicant’s life.
I honestly can’t see what’s wrong with that. There is absolutely no “reverse discrimination” present when a child of Mexican immigrants with a 3.5 GPA who had to work two jobs through high school is offered admission over an incredibly comfortable kid like me with a 3.9; there’s only recognition of vast differences in background and advantage between the two of us. Recognition of those differences is the vital point here. Thiel and Sacks lament, for example, that “ the average SAT disparity between Stanford’s African-American and white admittees [recently] reached 171 points.” Even if it did, that remains a full 30 points below the amount that my own SAT scores went up after my parents paid for a stunningly expensive program of extracurricular tutoring, something most people from disadvantaged backgrounds likely can’t afford.
Nobody is saying that we should hand someone admission simply for being a person of color. Nobody is saying that people who have earned affluence should apologize for what they have. All that Stanford is looking to do with its existing affirmative action policies is to meaningfully get a complete picture of the individual applicant. That’s it. Affirmative action serves here only as an effort to underscore the talent among minority groups that may not be visible when only raw numbers are considered. And if it comes down to defending that, I hope it’s clear that I plan on standing in the affirmative.
Contact Ben Kaufman at bkauf614 ‘at’ stanford.edu.
Affirmative action, much like the message of Che Guevara or Karl Marx’s ideology, is one of those ideas that started out in a positive light and then went careening down a more dangerous path. Meant as a preventative measure to workplace discrimination, its origins from the Reconstruction to the magnificent triumph of the Civil Rights Act all held true to this initial idea. For nearly a century its message was one of equal opportunity for all candidates, and with each successive president, great strides were made to ensure that qualification was the only factor affecting one’s employment.
Then Nixon came along, and with him the suggestion that rigorous numeric measurements such as goals and timetables should be taken as signs of affirmative action’s implementation. The thought itself was harmless, but it marked the initiation of a gradual shift in the way affirmative action was both viewed and implemented; over the next 30 or so years, the notion would grow (affirmed by the legislature in the 1977 Public Works Employment Act and judicially marked by Regents of the University of California v. Bakke in 1978) that numbers mattered and that success was a case of percentage. Nowadays, the principles of modern affirmative action uphold as goals other concepts besides mere equality, among these the ideas of diversity and representation and that quotas are more important than competency. Its message has changed.
For good? Some would say so. To them, a diversified workforce holds a kind of intrinsic value to it, a quality that gives it greater worth than a collective body of individuals with apparent similarities. It’s an interesting opinion, and it prompts others to then ask, exactly how much better is the one than the other, and what must be sacrificed to achieve it? The immediate expected effect is a decrease in overall competency, as the value traits within an organization, such as expertise or skill, decline once they cease to be the sole adjudicators of admission or employment. Consider the mismatch hypothesis, the thought that underprepared minority students perform poorly when admitted to difficult colleges. While this theory hasn’t been all together validated, it does draw attention to the results of racially-oriented favoritism in admissions processes — namely, that a more qualified student loses his spot. A similar, even more consequential, result can occur in workplace environments: for example, when a higher-level position that ties indirectly to the success or failure of a company is filled by a less-qualified individual.
But the true harm of our modern affirmative action lies hidden deep within its loudly proclaimed message. It professes to equality, but its methods put means before ends, and like all ideas of great strength, the image it conjures up is a powerful one. A massive set of scales, with bowls whose depth and height are are of immeasurable size, stretching three taut cords up, up through the darkness to the grasp of a looming arm. But these scales have not two, not ten, but a hundred arms, joined at the center in a great hub of cold iron and presided over by a blindfolded figure of justice. On each arm there is a label in bleak lettering. Women, one reads. Blacks, another says. Latinos. Homosexuals. Asians. Veterans. Transgenders. Elderly. Disabled. And on and on they sound off, in every direction, and the lady in the center holds her sword high above them all.
Only, her blindfold is a sham. For her true goal is not equality but rather sameness, and her justice is not blind to those who seek it; no, it is much aware of exactly, precisely what its supplicants are. What, not who. To her, they are not people with hopes and dreams, not humans whose value far exceeds the obvious shallowness of appearance. They are data points, their characters reduced to its single, most obvious facet and nothing more. Each fits very nicely under its own label, neat and tidy, and so her balancing act is much simpler, now that a billion individuals have been reduced to a mere hundred titles. She judges not on principle, but on characteristic, and thus does not judge at all.
The intentions behind affirmative action were undoubtedly pure and well-meaning. Something along the lines of: To account for the sins of the past, we must pay their current debts. We must make restitution for the current accumulation of centuries-old grievances in the hopes of balancing the scales. But using bias as a tool to do so puts the means before the ends and places still more barriers among a people bent on unification. The ideas of modern affirmative action disregard the current person in favor of the ancient group, sacrificing today on the altar of yesterday. Even worse, they harm the possibility for a better tomorrow. A tomorrow in which labels take a backseat and justice is truly blind, and the complexities and values of the individual are the most important characteristics of them all.
Contact Wyatt Smitherman at wtsmith ‘at’ stanford.edu.