In the beginning of August, the Jeff Sessions-led Department of Justice announced it was going to use its resources to investigate, and subsequently sue Universities it deemed were discriminating against white and Asian applicants under the umbrella of affirmative action. Of course, to effectively and definitively determine that certain applicants were accepted to certain universities based solely upon their race is nearly impossible. The pertinent range of achievement is infinite as are the variables; quantifying academic distinction and personal merit extends far beyond test scores and transcripts. Moreover, the primary tenets of affirmative action have been continually upheld by the Supreme Court (including Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin just last year). While provisions of the law state that a university’s first line of assessment must be race-blind, the power to maintain a diverse student population is largely in the University’s hands. This grants a fair amount of latitude to academic institutions regarding their admission practices.
The real issues with the affirmative action program have nothing to do with the perceived issues the DOJ are investigating.
Overall, affirmative action in higher education (the sole focus of this piece) has been tepidly successful; the program has never quite lived up to expectations. A report out today by the New York Times analyzed the student makeup of 100 schools ranging from “public flagship universities to the Ivy League.” They found moderate gains for African-American and Hispanics in terms of overall enrollment, but these gains do not extend to elite schools. If population growth is factored in, since 1980, the number of African-American and Hispanic students enrolled at top schools is essentially the same. Additionally, as the Times pointed out in a separate piece, many black and Latino students who were admitted to prestigious universities have said they’re viewed by many as pure diversity hires so to speak—which is to say their race, not their scholastic achievements are seen as the primary reason for their acceptance.
There’s also the “mismatch hypothesis,” which states that affirmative action in higher education occasionally places students in academic situations with the odds stacked against them, setting them up for failure. While its prevalence has been debated, there seems to now be some consensus that mismatches do occur now and again.
But all of these deficiencies are byproducts of one overarching deficiency: affirmative action starts too late.
Waiting until someone is 17 or 18 years old to equate for discrimination and disenfranchisement clearly does not do enough to actually level the playing field. It’s not entirely without benefit, but this method is significantly handicapped by all of the factors that precede it. If a child is raised in abject poverty, educated in sub-par schools with little resources or opportunities, that student, in many cases, has already been set on a tilted trajectory. The key to aggressively combating inequality and discrimination in academia is to do it immediately.
Affirmative action should cover all schools from kindergarten on up. Not only would this help diversify the populations of elite elementary and secondary schools, but it would provide a solid base for advancement in higher education and in the work force. Plus, it just makes logical sense. Communities of color have been mistreated and forgotten for decades upon decades. From slavery and Jim Crow through the war on drugs, mass incarceration, police targeting, loan discrimination, employment discrimination, housing discrimination via redlining, voter discrimination via gerrymandering and myriad, ingrained practices of rampant social discrimination—the inequality has been brazen. The comfy white suburbs were not an accident, they were created as a way to separate and isolate impoverished minorities into urban areas and housing projects.
So no, giving a poor African American kid a potential leg-up with college admissions is not enough; it’s not nearly enough. The problem with affirmative action in higher education is that it should be the last piece of a consistently evolving puzzle, not the first. It hasn’t been nearly as successful as it should be because it doesn’t effectively account for the pervasive, systemic issues facing people of color in the years before they are juniors and seniors in high school.
It’s like giving an MLB baseball team broomsticks instead of bats, broken-down practice facilities, ripped jerseys, cleats that are too small, and a JV high school coach and then, at the end of the season granting them 15 more wins to help boost their chances of making the playoffs. It may work from time to time, maybe every few decades or so the team makes the post-season and goes on a run, but a much better approach would be to actually get the team real baseball bats, non-ripped jerseys, cleats that fit and a legitimate coach. If the ultimate goal is to make this team competitive with the rest of the league so that the 15 game boost isn’t needed in the future, the most efficient way to achieve equality is to start at the beginning.
Previously published on The Overgrown.