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Affirmative Action Dysfunctional Way To Bridge Socioeconomic Difference

Ashley Yang |
April 6, 2013 | 4:09 p.m. PDT


The Supreme Court is poised to decide the constitutionality of affirmative action in admissions and hiring policies. (Supermac1961, Creative Commons)
The Supreme Court is poised to decide the constitutionality of affirmative action in admissions and hiring policies. (Supermac1961, Creative Commons)

The Supreme Court's recent activities have not just reignited public debate on the contentious issue of same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court cases Fisher v. The University of Texas and Schuette vs. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, which respectively address a university policy of using race as a factor in college admissions and a Michigan proposition to ban the consideration of race in public university admissions, have once again placed race-based affirmative action policies under close scrutiny. The current cases question whether contemporary racial dynamics still necessitate legislative action to mitigate inequalities faced by people of color.

The concept of affirmative action was implemented as an attempt to correct for past social injustices whose effects have impacted subsequent generations as well as those that endure today. For the past 100 years, the U.S.'s record on racial equality has been bleak. The principle of providing public goods of equal quality to people on all rungs of the socioeconomic ladder has been an unrealized ideal. And even though de jure racial discrimination has been repeatedly struck down by the judiciary, bigoted opinions and negative stereotypes of people of color persist in all levels of society and affect the quality of life of minorities and the underprivileged on a daily basis.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) defines affirmative action as:

“any [active] measure...that permits the consideration of race, national origin, sex, or disability, along with other criteria, and which is adopted to provide opportunities to a class of qualified individuals who have...been denied those opportunities and/or to prevent the recurrence of discrimination in the future.”

On the surface, the goal of this policy is clearly articulated: to mitigate the unequal distribution of opportunities for success that have disadvantaged historically marginalized groups, such as women and people of color. But its emphasis on those demographic markers that are plainly visible and widely accepted as natural divisions within the human population makes affirmative action too narrowly tailored to effectively pursue social justice; the policy thus may not yield the social diversity it idealizes.

A cursory look at the demographics of the socioeconomic spectrum alone reveals the prominent racial divide between the poor and the middle or upper classes in the U.S. According to 2010 statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, 27.4 percent of blacks and 26.6 percent of Hispanics were recognized as poor by national thresholds, compared to 9.9 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 12.1 percent of Asians. Poverty rates are highest for families headed by single women, particularly if they were black or Hispanic. Thirty-four percent of white Americans and 50.3 percent of Asians hold a bachelor’s degree, compared to 14.1 percent of Hispanics and 19.9 percent of blacks. These numbers demonstrate that people of color are both financially and educationally disadvantaged. This reality is apparent even without statistical analysis of the numbers, especially if one lives in an area like South Central L.A., where the racial makeup of the urban poor is plainly visible.

However, because affirmative action policies operate mainly in universities and places of employment, individuals gain access to the opportunities provided by affirmative action too late in their lives to fully benefit from them. The deficiency of resources for them early in their lives have already taken an immeasurable toll: the quality of education, extracurricular programs and community support available to economically disadvantaged persons pale in comparison to those of the middle or upper classes. Instead of addressing these issues, which themselves create the need for affirmative action, decision-makers have implemented a crude solution, one that redistributes the value of the achievements of individuals within the framework of race. Providing equal rewards for unequal merit does not actually provide economically disadvantaged persons with the tools to succeed; rather, it excuses society for ignoring those persons' needs by doling out a consolation prize.  

Not only that, but the suggestion that people of historically underprivileged races may need an extra bump to compete fairly with whites undermines the skills and achievements they have attained by their own efforts. It is true that affirmative action does not blindly hand out benefits to members of minority groups who are blatantly undeserving, but the policy’s underlying motivation suggests that racial equalization is necessary because blacks and Hispanics have somehow been irrevocably “crippled” by their poorer circumstances. This benevolent segregation assumes that whites will inherently possess a stronger skillset, and that minorities would not stand a fighting chance without an added boost.

Furthermore, race is no longer an absolute indicator of social privilege. Just as there are wealthy Hispanics and African-Americans, there are also poor whites. Equating race with socioeconomic status unjustly ignores the situations of those who do not belong to the dominant race-class groups. A poor white person may be evaluated by affirmative action as socially privileged, while a middle-class Hispanic may be deemed disadvantaged. White privilege still a reality, but it provides little benefit without a complementary economic status.

Once the assumption that a specific race automatically indicates a certain socioeconomic class is revealed to be false, then the idea that racial diversity within a population contributes to a richer community experience no longer makes sense. The reasoning behind working toward a racially diversified campus or workplace stems from the expectation that people of a common race come from similar life experiences. In the context of the previous assumption, that expectation would be that most whites are middle-class while most blacks and Hispanics lived in urban poverty. A case can be made that different races represent different cultural experiences, but as race in the American melting pot is hardly indicative of national origin, racial diversity does not guarantee interjection of non-American culture into the mix. Put simply, one cannot assume that a wider color spectrum among a population will ensure the presence of different paradigms fostered by different lived experiences. To do so would grossly and erroneously simplify the relationship of culture and race in the U.S.   

Finally, the reliance upon historical context for justifying the necessity for affirmative action reveals a social injustice in itself. Previous generations of whites implemented measures to prevent people of color from gaining academic and professional success, not the current one. Although the residual effects of previous measures can still be felt by this generation, either positively or negatively, we are not and cannot reasonably be expected to take responsibility for the actions of our forefathers. It is unjust to the historically advantaged group to label its people as oppressors who continue to actively perpetuate discrimination. Racism is very much alive in America, but is no longer as institutionalized as it was decades ago.

Race does not inherently shape the experiences and achievements of an individual; rather, its inextricable connection to socioeconomic status does. Therefore, instead of utilizing racial markers that could be indicative of privilege, income and background - two factors that actually represent advantageous circumstances - should be evaluated when assessing an individual’s merit. The hardships and obstacles (or lack thereof) that an individual had to overcome in order to succeed are no less significant than the actual entries on another individual's CV. This approach to "affirmative action" may result in more logistical complications, as it does not fit evaluation criteria into a series of boxes to check. But it evaluates the effects of socioeconomics on personal achievement in their purest form, devoid of hazy associations with race that are predicated upon fallacious beliefs.


Reach Contributor Ashley Yang here.



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