Why Affirmative Action is Wrong

Why Affirmative Action is Wrong

The Diversity Dilemma

  • What is Affirmative Action

Over the last 50 years, Affirmative Action has been a fierce debate. The policy began in 1961 as a government initiative to offer opportunities to historically excluded groups, allowing preferential treatment based on race to cobble back equity. Since diversity has counted as a criterion in college admissions, enrollment for minority groups has gone up over recent years, especially in racially conscious selective universities, such as Yale, Cornell, Texas, and Michigan. We all have also realized the tremendous racial imbalance, not only institutions. Affirmative Action is a commitment to appealing for solidarity, addressing social and racial inequalities that exist more than just in California.

  • The Public Attitude

This set racial quota was banned in 1996 in California after being challenged by the public. Those in the civil rights movement opposed Prop. 16 as a form of racism – giving special treatment for underrepresented groups rather than individual merit. However, after 24 years, in the 2020 California Proposition 16, there was again a general election ballot for retention; a constitutional repeal to amend 1996's Proposition 209 (needed 2/3 of Californian voters). Although groups of people were appealing for gender and race into consideration once again, this election was eventually defeated.

People from the "No" side argued that this scheme gives less qualified people an unfair advantage to get into the program. There is an element of secrecy and lack of transparency: race is a factor that nobody has control over in their applications. Direct benefits given to the elites of color are a euphemism of reverse discrimination, and it is inherently wrong.

(A short episode; students were protesting UC Berkeley's given unfair preference to the racial minorities:)

Incidentally, back in the 1970s, UC Davis had a quota of sports reserved for black applicants. However, when a white guy named Allan Bakke got rejected from its medical school, he sued UC Davis, claiming he was denied because of the quota. He took the case to the Supreme Court, and the result turned out that he won. It made racial quotas became unconstitutional.

Arguments for Affirmative Action

  1. Corrective

The most common perception towards Affirmative Action is that this policy acts as a tool for mediating the differences in educational backgrounds: the kind of school people went to and the opportunities they had. However, only academic promise and scholarly potential should count in admissions; we just need to go beyond test scores and grades alone to get an accurate estimate of scholar ability.

2. Compensatory

The second argument is that Affirmative Action is justified as a way of compensating for past wrongs or historical injustices, even where there may not be the need to correct for educational disadvantages in a particular applicant's case. Of course, no one should be admitted to a school purely based on their race, but giving discounts is permissible for those associated with past enslavement and social prejudice.

3. Diversity

Lastly, some talk about the social purpose. The social mission of the college or university is to provide an educational experience for everyone, which at the same time, it implies that we need a diverse student body. For society as a whole, we need to train lawyers, judges, or public leaders who not contribute to the civic strength but also the strength of states overall.

The Alternative

  • What do people always get wrong?

After the abolishment of Affirmative Action took place, research finds that the enrollment of ethnic minority students, such as Latino, Native Hawaiian, and Native Alaskan students, have decreased at selective institutions. Nowadays, when people hear Affirmative Action, they often think, "oh, he got that job because he's black." "She got that job because she's Hispanic" "this is a policy that even sometimes makes the admission officers uncomfortable!" Some Asians claim that regardless of how much institutions say they're colorblind, they is always left out of the equality conversation. Asians see this as an attack on them; they are begrudging about the reduction in their enrollment by over 50%, expressing concerns when it comes to the disparities and the elimination of opportunities: "Affirmative Action is criminal justice, terrorizing our community using legislation. The hard specific quota punishes better-qualified individuals and puts Americans against one another; it's racial discrimination!"

Interestingly, the U.S Asian Population is 5.7% of the nation's population, but for the Harvard class of 2021, Asian-Americans make up 22.2% of the total enrollment. Still, somehow for Asian parents, their expectations for kids who they think are very bright hard workers to get into Harvard is 100%. So, here comes the counterargument: the big Asian community is simply a community that lacks self-awareness, propagating anti-black & brown rhetoric not because the Asian-Americans can get justice but because they themselves can get ahead.

The lawsuit of Affirmative Action went into the federal court; an investigation began into Harvard's admission process. The group called Students for Fair Admissions accused elite colleges of discriminating against Asian-American and white students, limiting the number of students who deserve to get their spot.

  • Legacy Admission

There is a difference between Race-Conscious and Quotas. In my opinion, schools can still be racially conscious in admissions, and race can be used as one factor among many factors in the holistic review of an applicant (as that's how Harvard claims to admit students). But if you don't get into Harvard, don't complain about the myth that you might have been mistreated. Perhaps it's more about getting into Harvard itself is insanely hard, and it's only getting harder! From 10.3% in 2008 to 3.43% in 2021.


Harvard is far from perfect in all of this. From the forced handed over admission rate for the lawsuit, we can see how selective they are – the acceptance rate plunging from double digits to 4%. It's worth suggesting that when facing Affirmative Action, the admissions committee should say, "hey, our school should have more diverse friends!" instead of considering specific racial quora and saying, "our school needs two more black friends!"

Think about it, maybe dismantling Affirmative Action won't get rid of implicit bias, racism, or automatically make Harvard fairer. If you really want to make Harvard a better place, perhaps your attention should be on something else –the legacy admission, the practice that deliberately favors children whose parents/relatives went there (alumni) or teach there.

The extraordinary legacy system makes up 10 - 20% of the population of elite schools. This is the white, wealthy beneficiaries' Affirmative Action. For so long, elite universities have been dedicated to building up their student bodies with familial relationships. With the athletic scholarships given to recruited athletes every year (almost 20x better chance of getting in), it doesn't really leave much room for the rest.

Egalitarians argue that everybody should get a fair opportunity to get into Harvard if they try equally hard. "To achieve equality, we need to move to a purely strict merit-based admissions system, push Harvard to a more socially just institution; stop discriminating, simply insisting on meritocracy alone, define performance by objective measurement such as marks. Borden the access for education at the same time, so people could all thrive."

  • The Egalitarian's Failure

There is a big BUT. Yes, there are Affirmative Action, Legacy Admission (preservation of position/opportunity holding), and athletic scholars, but suppose you got rid of that, and you admit people based on grades and SAT scores alone. It's pretty likely that those admitted would be children of professionals who have lots of books and social & intellectual capital at home. In other words, even if you take the students from humble backgrounds and the excellent ones into one building, top students will still disappear into Harvard or Yale, while the remaining end up in public schools, facing stagnant wages and suffering. And that is still inequality. If you look at people getting into Princeton or Yale, they tend to come from families or professionals who live in certain zip codes. What makes you qualified for those elite universities perhaps isn't your GPA, SAT scores, or impressive extracurricular activities; it is your last name and your social pedigree. Even people with outstanding athletic abilities, for example, rowers, tend to be from inner-city schools with privileged backgrounds. By removing AA and Legacy Admission, you may get rid of some people whose only attribute is that their granddaddy went there. But still, you'd be drawing from a tiny chunk of society.

  • The Nobel Lie

It may be true that there's no great moral merit if I get into Harvard. However, as human beings, it's a necessary lie for us to believe that I am playing by the rules and I deserve to get what I get. Because first of all, it gives purpose to our lives. Secondly, it induces good behavior in a world; otherwise, people will run amok.

There are studies showing that those non-cognitive abilities, self-control, punctuality, or discipline are the kinds of things we pick up from our parents (if our parents had them). This is called reproducing privilege. Students at Harvard may partially deserve it with their studiousness: a description of rewards for efforts, the result of self-discipline, and the labor of hard work. But the elites need to understand the fragility of their positions.

The system of redistributive justice embodies that the income & inheritance tax is based on the principle that you owe something back to society for being lucky. Maybe it's only a dream for us to truly be equal. The privileged will try everything possible to pass down their advantages along to their children. But we should set barriers; make it more difficult for the elites to pass their privileges onto their kids by using more rigorous educational selection, more objective tests, and prohibiting Legacy Admission.

  • Reference
California Proposition 16, Repeal Proposition 209 Affirmative Action Amendment (2020)
Ballotpedia: The Encyclopedia of American Politics