Something interesting, albeit depressing, happened in California this past year. The debate over using affirmative action in the California university system came back to rear its ugly head, with a bill proposed by Democrats in the state legislature to reinstate the practice (which was previously banned in 1996). As a result, the divide in the California zeitgeist was not only political (Republicans opposing affirmative action, Democrats supporting), but heavily racial as well.
As the HuffingtonPost reports in the article linked above:
“The state’s governing party has split along racial lines. Three Asian-American senators, all Democrats who were seeking higher office at the time, withdrew their support of the bill after being bombarded by public criticism.
Six black and Latino lawmakers have since withdrawn their endorsements of Sen. Ted Lieu, who is Chinese-American, in a Los Angeles-area congressional race where he faces another Democrat in the primary. And some black and Latino Assembly members this month withheld votes from unrelated legislation about the state’s carpool program by Assemblyman Al Muratsutchi, D-Torrance, who is Japanese-American.
The Senate’s Democratic leader, President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, acknowledged the animosity. He said in a statement that he wanted “a serious and sober examination” of affirmative action, adding “I am deeply concerned anytime one ethnic group turns on another.””
Why were black and Latin-American Democrats pitted against Asian-American Democrats? Well, affirmative action overwhelmingly harms Asian-American students. Even more so than white students. So Asian lawmakers came out to oppose it, following outcries from their constituencies.
Racial biases were banned in the California university system’s admissions process in 1996. Since race/ethnicity has not been a factor in admissions, and acceptance has been more of a meritocracy over the last two decades, Asian students have taken a disproportionate share of the available student slots in proportion to their population.
The battle over affirmative action is not limited to California. It’s the hottest of hot button issues (besides maybe sexual assault) on college campuses across the nation. So SoCawlege will give you an honest rundown of what we think of affirmative action. NOTHING that we say here is based on any racial animus. NOTHING that we say here should suggest a hatred or preference for one race of people. And NO ONE should be morally bankrupt enough to accuse us of it. But who are we kidding, you will do so anyway.
There are two areas of disagreement over affirmative action. These are the philosophical/moral realm, and the practical realm. The philosophical/moral realm concerns the emotions, feelings, and subjective beliefs behind the program. Proponents of affirmative action argue that preferences for certain groups are crucial to make up for ‘past wrongs,’ and that it is a moral necessity to support these program for the sake of equality. Those who oppose using race, gender, or other overt physical characteristics as criteria for admission to universities argue that using these criteria is a moral hazard. Essentially, even if there were biases in the past, you shouldn’t fix past racism with more racism today.
Both of these subjective opinions can be argued for or against by well meaning, intelligent people. We are not going to do that here. If you find affirmative action morally acceptable, or deplorable, that is your prerogative and like the issue of abortion, it is based more in what someone’s principles are than their objective reasoning abilities.
Instead, let’s look at the practical realm. Has affirmative action, where it has been tried, done what it was intended to do as a policy matter?
The goal of affirmative action is clear: close socioeconomic gaps between groups. For example, if more blacks and Latinos get access to higher education, then presumably the gaps in things like income, job opportunities, and academic qualifications, between underprivileged groups and whites (as well as other minorities) will be reduced. Certainly a noble goal, and many people would think duh, of course affirmative action does that. Why would giving underprivileged groups an easier time of it in the admissions process not help them? Well there is in fact a counter-argument.
This argument has been made by multiple public intellectuals and pundits. The problem is, it still isn’t widely known, mainly because of the media’s strong bias against Republican/conservative ideals.
Here is Wall Street Journal editorial board member, Jason Riley, explaining the counter (From 10:10-12:41):
The point we are focusing on starts at 10:10 and ends at 12:41 in the above video.
Let’s make the point even clearer: Say that you have a black student who scored 2000/2400 on the SAT. A smart kid no doubt. He could feasibly do well, and graduate on time at many different schools across the nation, such as the University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin, Boston University, or Northeastern as examples. However, that might not be true at MIT. Whether you are black, white, or rainbow colored, MIT is far more rigorous academically. Someone who scores below 750 on math is in the bottom fourth of students! Their entire top 25% scored a perfect 800 in math (that 25% could be even larger, we can’t tell based on the data).
If college kids from the groups who receive affirmative action are sent to schools that are one or more tiers above where they would best fit academically, they could be in trouble. It makes them more likely to drop out, rack up more debt by having to graduate late, or switch to an easier major with less earning potential in a future career. All negative side effects of affirmative action, achieving the OPPOSITE of the program’s intentions.
So that, in a nutshell, is why affirmative action may do more harm than good. There have been studies done on the effects of this “mis-match” phenomena, and I encourage you all to do your own research, rather than simply read more of what we have to say.
But before you make up your mind, remember what has been happening in California. America is going to become increasingly more diverse in the next few decades. Racially/ethnically, culturally, religiously, and in terms of gender identity/sexual orientation as well. All of these things complicate the issue of affirmative action. If there are only two or three groups (for example whites and blacks) it is much easier to manage preferences. But if there are more groups at the table, as there increasingly are, affirmative action (the act of judging people based off who they are instead of what they do) is going to become increasingly tense and dangerous public policy.