Affirmative action still needed in America

The national discourse on affirmative action is fanatically negative or intellectually inert or both.

The latest iteration of the debate stems from University of Texas-Austin’s denial of admission to Abigail Fisher in 2008. UT has a “top ten percent” admissions guarantee—the college admits students from the top ten percent of every high school that ranks its students. In theory, this provides the University with students from impoverished communities, fulfilling its desire for diversity. Texan students who rank below the ninetieth percentile may still apply, but their admission is contingent on a holistic appraisal, in which race is considered. Fisher, who ranked in the top 12 percent of her high school, sued after her rejection, claiming minority students less qualified than she matriculated.

The Supreme Court deliberated the lawfulness of affirmative action in university admissions policies last week, hearing the arguments of both sides. Supporters of UT stressed the merits of diversity and the virtues of rectifying inequality. The plaintiffs portrayed Fisher as a victim of reverse-discrimination. Subscribing to either narrative reduces this complex issue to a false dilemma. Instead, the public must acknowledge the difficulty in parsing the variables and factors involved in university admissions. Only then can rational discussion of affirmative action and its consequences proceed. As geographically distant and legally irrelevant as the debate may be to Wash. U., a private institution that abides by entirely different rules from a school such as UT, affirmative action is a national issue. And at a school where only seven percent of students receive Pell Grants, six percent are African-American and four percent are Hispanic, the issue of affirmative action can hardly be considered distant.

The three most obvious variables in Fisher v. University of Texas and affirmative action cases in general, which each side recognizes to differing degrees and sometimes not at all, are race, socioeconomic status and access to education. Any argument formed without addressing each of these is incomplete at best or intellectually dishonest at worst.

Those who cite the election of Obama as president in 2008 as evidence of a post-racial America are delusional. The ascension of an African American to government’s highest office evinces undeniable progress since 1965, when affirmative action programs began after the Civil Rights movement. Yet, Africans American are far more likely to live in poverty, be denied employment or be imprisoned. St. Louis provides numerous examples. When watching last week’s playoff baseball games at Busch Stadium, did you notice the fans in the expensive seats behind home plate wearing ties or North Face fleeces and clutching Louis Vuitton handbags and peering from behind Oliver Peoples frames—how many were black? Furthermore, today’s discussion of race must include Hispanic and Asian populations, which are far more prominent than fifty years ago. Overtly racially discriminatory laws no longer exist, but American society remains segregated.

Compounding racial prejudice is the plight of the socioeconomically underprivileged. The gap between the very rich and the poor has never been so wide, and economic mobility has never been so low. Socioeconomic status is a strong predictor of life expectancy, access to sufficient health care and especially education.

Traditionally, the American solution to social inequality has been expansion of access to education. From Jefferson’s bill for publicly-funded universal education, which intended to further enlighten the electorate, to the integration of racially-segregated schools in the Civil Rights era, education has been an effective and invaluable tool for improving the quality of American life. Following this example, it is imperative to continue increasing educational access to rectify persisting social imbalances. It is important to note, however, that the definition of educational access must be updated to fit the times. No longer is a high school diploma sufficient to ensure viability in the modern workforce; nearly all jobs require some technical school or college education. Today’s educational reforms must improve minority and marginalized populations’ access to higher education as well.

There is only possible outcome we can see with respect to all of these issues: the Supreme Court must not overturn Grutter v. Bollinger. Even supposing the UT policy is reverse-discriminatory, that doesn’t mean all affirmative action policies should be abolished. The benefits of keeping affirmative action based on race remain as long as racial divisions continue to exist. As socioeconomic status becomes the predominant social ill, affirmative action should concentrate on providing educational opportunity regardless of socioeconomic status, to the extent that it is possible to do so. And prominent universities, as institutions instrumental to social change and mobility, should be at the forefront of that effort. Wash. U., as one such institution with a student body homogenous in both racial and economic diversity, should look to University of Texas-Austin’s commitment to diversity as a standard—if not a model—and seek more ways to increase diversity on campus.

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