Affirming Affirmative Action

Affirmative Action. Two of the most divisive words related to race. And since the Supreme Court made its decision on Fisher v. University of Texas-Austin on Monday,  this issue has come to the forefront of controversy again.

Growing up in a predominantly (and I mean predominantly white--97% to be precise), suburban town, if I had a nickel for every time someone mentioned "affirmative action" being the reason why denial letters were rolling in instead of acceptances, I'd have retired right then and there. There was frustration abound against "racial minorities" who were "less qualified" and taking away the spots that we spoiled suburban students were entitled to. At the time, I even questioned the efficacy and "fairness" of affirmative action myself. Didn't we live in a "post-racial" society? Wasn't economic status and social class more important than race? What about poor whites from urban areas--shouldn't they deserve assistance more than the smattering of minorities in wealthy suburbs?

All of these questions consumed my thoughts. After all, I had read the studies that say that Asian students appear to be held to a higher standard when it comes to the application process to top-tier colleges, whether it's SAT scores or grades. And when I was receiving my thinner-than-I-had-hoped envelopes from several of these colleges, it seemed like a convenient excuse to say that affirmative action was the problem. I railed against the controversy that Asian American students sometimes don't check the "Asian" box for race out of fear that that will be held against them. It wasn't until arriving at college when I realized that I was entirely missing the point.

And that's why this recent piece in the LA times by sociology professor Carolyn Chen really resonated with me.

The fundamental problem is not that blacks and Latinos are taking seats from Asian Americans. Real justice and equality at elite universities will not come by opposing affirmative action. There is a cost, in both political power and principle, to doing so. Asian Americans would be better off making common cause with other minorities who also face obstacles entering elite institutions.

It's totally true. In order to truly end discrimination and racism, we need to band together, not point fingers at one another. History is full of minority races being pitted against each other and seeing equality as a zero sum game. In reality, though, we are strengthened by uniting and seeking to dismantle the current system of inequity. Instead of being angry that someone from a different race and who may or may not have been similarly qualified was admitted while I was not, I should have wondered about the lack of social mobility in our society and the fact that half of my peers (and I suspect across the board in many suburban areas) applied and were admitted to institutions that their parents either worked at or graduated from.

At the end of the day, the college admissions process is capricious and subjective. There really isn't any set formula for guaranteeing admissions. And to point the finger at affirmative action as something unfair while pointedly ignoring other factors of admission as the cartoon above demonstrates is not at all productive.

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