Thinking beyond affirmative action

Equality, one of the founding principles of this country, is at the heart of the affirmative action controversy. The policy, which promises to equalize outcomes across different groups of people by using identity as a factor in college admissions and job hirings, has had a long and controversial history, and recent discourse about it has veered into the territory of tribal conflict. While both sides of the conflict bring up real concerns about what it means to be “equal,” the dichotomy created by these two groups fails to address the root issue that led to the creation of affirmative action, and the failure of affirmative action to address this issue.

The main argument for affirmative action is that it allows underprivileged groups to achieve the same level of success as more privileged parts of America, and on paper it sounds like a straightforward forward way to do it. Initiatives in institutions to increase the diversity of their staff or student body do lift those that are likely disadvantaged into positions they otherwise might not have had. However, the issue with this simplistic kind of solution is in the implication. The agency of underprivileged groups is stripped away from them when it is assumed that they must be compensated for, and taking in underperforming students or workers just for diversity’s sake further reinforces the narrative that some people are just inherently less capable than others. After all, why else would a system that equalizes outcomes from different inputs mean anything besides that some people do less than others?

The argument for affirmative action, however, is strong no matter how unfair its opponents say it is. The effects are especially felt by women, who have been helped by affirmative action so much that it is estimated that 6 million jobs for women would not exist had it not been for affirmative action. The case for affirmative action is strictly about the welfare of a country’s citizens. Affirmative action, in providing jobs for women, gradually removed the stigma of women in the workplace, promoting gender equality and empowering generations of women to work, knowing that they had the accommodations to make work possible to get. This goes doubly in education, where the amount of women earning high level degrees like doctorates has increased almost fourfold since 1970, which was five years after the first executive order to include women in affirmative action.

However, that argument seems to fall a bit short when it comes to race. Professor of Sociology Charles Hurst argues that affirmative action disproportionately benefits mostly rich minorities, leaving the vast amount of disadvantaged people still unable to attend college. The argument for class-based affirmative action, Hurst writes, is much stronger than race-based action, since the lower class is disproportionately made up of those same disadvantaged racial groups. If the intention of affirmative action was to actually assist those that would not otherwise get jobs or educations, its focus should be on raising people out of poverty. After all, the main reason to get an education and job in this society is to make money, so why should those that are already privileged enough to have money be of the same stripe of “disadvantaged” as those who cannot afford any kind of higher education?

To draw from my personal experience as a student, education is a pay to win game. Standardized testing scores can be drastically improved if a student takes an expensive class, and grades can be raised and maintained easily if a student has the money for tutors or private group lessons. It is unfair to assume that this kind of education system is in any way meritocratic when some children have the means to bankroll their entire education from kindergarten to high school, while others do not even have enough money to afford a computer and stable internet connection. It is easy for those that do have the means to say “I did it all by myself, so why can’t you?” because they are blind to the everyday struggles that others face. It is in this kind of unjust society that the poor stay poor. Poor parents struggle to get their children through school, and their grades and scores do not stand a chance against those who have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in education. It is simple to see that the solution to the disparity between people can be simply solved by giving those who really need an education, like first generation high school graduates, a fighting chance.

By Jason Wu, Opinion Editor
Editorial cartoon by Joy Wang