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Achievements, not Attributes: Abolishing Affirmative Action

Abigail Fischer was denied a spot at her dream university. No, it wasn’t Yeshiva University, it was the University of Texas at Austin. She had a nice resume, a fairly high GPA, and, for all intents and purposes, was in the top ten percent of her graduating class. Abigail contends that the 2008 decision to reject her was a result of the university’s policies—motivated by affirmative action—that she views as unjust. So, like any good American, she sued the University of Texas.

The official decision by the United States Supreme Court, which listened to the oral arguments of Fischer v. University of Texas this past month, will decide the law of the land. Unfortunately, we’ve got to wait a couple of months for their decision to be handed down. The courts may simply rule that the university violated guidelines. However, there is a chance the court will undo laws that many people deem unnecessary in a quick and efficient manner by bypassing lawmakers in multiple branches of government. There is a chance that the court could strike down all race-conscious admissions policies at our nation’s universities, and I hope they do just that.

Fear of being labeled a racist (or worse, a neo-conservative) has silenced any potential dissenting opinions. But it’s time we had this conversation. Let me be clear from the outset that I do not oppose what I would deem “soft” affirmative action—the kind that seeks to reverse blatant discrimination, dismantle racist organizations, and generally give every American an equal chance to participate. That includes programs at our nation’s universities that reach out to underrepresented students and urge them to apply. What I am skeptical of is “hard” affirmative action, the type that forces institutions to give preferential treatment on the basis of race, ethnicity or gender.

Speaking to Howard University in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson spoke of the “next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights” which seeks “not just freedom but opportunity…not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.” His words are poignant and stark and take on a special significance in the context of the raging race riots of the mid 1960’s. But if we scrutinize the affirmative action in 2012, if we peel away its complex assumptions about race and success in the United States, we will conclude that affirmative action has no place in our society.

Making up for past wrongs is a worthy and necessary goal. But we must remember that there are no actions without equal and opposite reactions. Preferential treatment for certain students benefits African Americans while burdening young white males (and as will be shown, Jews, Asians and Mormons) who are in no way responsible for that wrong. Affirmative action attempts to right a wrong by doing a wrong. Abigail Fischer is not responsible for slavery, Jim Crow or discrimination. Ji Lian, a Chinese American, shouldn’t have lost his place at Princeton (despite making the waiting list) to “make up” for past wrongs. Justly addressing the horrors of slavery and apartheid and not merely pasting a band-aid on our past means doing more than selecting a few elite African Americans to universities, or, as a Wall Street Journal analysis found, giving them the equivalent of a 100-point SAT boost when it comes to admission preferences.

Nowadays, when we say that affirmative action is about making sure racial and ethnic minorities don’t “fall through the cracks” as Hilary Shelton from the NAACP said recently on National Public Radio, we are missing the forest for the trees. Jews and Chinese and Mormons, three minorities who suffered centuries of discrimination, are not “falling through the cracks.” When Affirmative Action ignores and even damages the admission chances for certain minorities, we’ve run into a perversion of the law. It’s essentially saying “There are too many smart Jews and Asians here.” If this sounds like reverse discrimination, that’s because it is reverse discrimination.  It’s a counter-productive inference about minorities that keeps institutions over-thinking race and ethnicity, and ironically, favoring some ethnicities over others.

So it’s not about “minorities” in general, but about certain minorities in particular. Unfortunately, when we begin to make generalizations about the education and economic status of minorities, we’re failing to see the trees in the forest. There are plenty of affluent, well-educated Black and Hispanic students. In fact, Richard Kahlenberg, author of the essay “A Better Affirmative Action: State Universities That Created Alternatives to Racial Preferences,” reported that 86 percent of African-Americans at selective institutions are middle or upper class. At the same time, there are also plenty of terribly impoverished whites isolated geographically and economically from these resources. Affirmative action wrongly correlates race with economic opportunity. It’s essentially saying “if you’re white, you’re well off; if you’re black, you must be poor.” It’s unbelievably condescending.

Despite what is commonly thought, affirmative action not only discriminates against the majority, but it also discriminates against minorities. Affirmative action’s modern application also corrupts the original intention of the law. The original purpose of the law was to pressure racist institutions—universities, schools, and government institutions—to comply with the nondiscrimination mandates of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Now, it’s pressuring institutions to make race-motivated (i.e. “racist”) decisions.

Those who believe that getting minority students into universities is the best way to address inequality have also not looked closely at the data about performance of those very students. A 2003 book by sociologists Elinor Barber and Stephen Cole demonstrates the academic hardships incurred when students are placed in selective schools not suited for their particular scholastic abilities, as affirmative action so forcefully does. These minority students have severely diminished chances of completing a degree and passing licensing exams, as well a higher likelihoods of poor grades and attrition rates in the hard sciences. Affirmative action, for the most part, does not produce successful tangible results. What it has produced are students who are way in over their heads because a selection process that was supposed to search for competency was instead interested in diversity.

One of the last remaining arguments made by supporters of the traditional affirmative action framework is that the law creates more racially diverse workplaces. Nancy McDuff, the chair of the Association of Chief Admission Officers of Public Universities said that at the University of Georgia, “we don't want the Georgia residents to only be surrounded by folks that look just like themselves.” Never mind content of character, it’s all about color of skin. So we get shallow appeals to diversity, such as touting statistics about students of color at various universities. What it should display is a meaningful breakdown of diversity—how many students are on welfare or how many students grew up in a single-parent home—the stuff of real diversity. (In fact, the university’s lawyer couldn’t define the central measure of diversity when questioned multiple times by Justice Scalia.)

I do not disagree with the idea that diversity spurs innovation, that it leads to more open-minded thinking, and that it is integral to a robust and creative student body. I do disagree with the idea that certain uncontrollable attributes—ethnicity, race, and gender—automatically lead to diversity. Will a middle class Latino student automatically offer a perspective shifting life-story than a student who lived in Hibbing, Minnesota and curled in high school? If a school is interested in superficial statistics, the answer will regrettably be yes.

Even worse than meaningless statistics about diversity, we have tread over basic liberties in an effort to diversify university and other institutional populations. A white male no longer has “equal opportunity” under the law. An Asian woman with objectively better qualifications than a Hispanic woman with whom she is fighting for a spot in a university should justly fear that affirmative action will challenge her right to that position (as Justice Alito expressed in Oral Arguments). When push comes to shove, accomplishments, qualifications, compelling life stories, and character can be shelved for the sake of diversity. And diversity for diversity’s sake is a moral perversion when it infringes on liberty and treats individuals as means toward a socially engineered end.

Affirmative action is motivated by the belief that race is the factor that leads to discrimination, lack of education, and lack of opportunity. Nowadays, no one can deny that forty years ago race was certainly the factor that limited choice for qualified students and prevented students from qualifying for choices. Fortunately, times have changed. Our admissions offices around the country can no longer be accused of racial favoritism. The campuses of major universities are brimming with substantive diversity. Perhaps we are trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.

I hope the Supreme Court leads the charge into the post-racial era where merit and merit alone dictates a candidate’s qualification. I hope admissions officers judge students based on an array of accomplishments—academic, extracurricular, artistic, athletic—in the face of trying socio-economic, geographical, or familial circumstances. I hope that college essays and recommendations are used to indicate merit—not a check box.