This affirmative action lawsuit is actually a good thing

Affirmative Action. Oh yeah, we’re gonna throw down.

I don’t know about you guys, but recently it seems like the lawsuit by Abigail Fisher against the University of Texas regarding affirmative action has been dominating the headlines so much, that it’s sorta bumped the presidential campaign to the sidelines. I wonder if the Obama or Romney campaign is going to weigh in on this, but considering what a hot topic it is, probably not. But oh man, imagine the explosions if it actually happened!

Anyways, I’m actually really glad this issue is getting so much attention. Affirmative action is just one of those things that we really have to keep coming back to evaluate, and then there’s the fact that I always think it’s a good thing when the American public is forced to consider the issue of racial equality. My opinion is that true racial equality, just like gender equality, can only be achieved by self-awareness and honesty about what’s really going on, not to mention constant evaluation of the state of affairs, followed by appropriate action to redress said inequality. Of course, the defining of “appropriate action,” as well as the scope of that “inequality” is the tough part, right?

Anyways,  here’s a few of the larger, general issues that have been (re-)raised by this court case that I want to consider:

  • Does affirmative action work?
    • What does affirmative action working mean?
    • What measurable statistic can we use to determine this?
    • Should race even be a consideration for college admission?

And specific to the case, of course:

  • Is the U of T’s affirmative action program simply implemented incorrectly? Or is it an inherent flaw in affirmative action?

I should preface this next section with the TL;DR answer of, I don’t know. I have opinions, but I’ve been reading up and listening to various opinions (being an ethnic minority myself in a more-diverse-than-average community has allowed for a lot of interesting conversation on this topic) and as usual, I have a hard time coming down on what exactly is the right thing. I guess the best way I can sum it up is: yes, I think racial inequality exists; yes, I think it’s getting better BUT yes, we do still need to be making sure we are making efforts to address racial inequality and determining how it exists in our society today.

So back to my questions.

Does affirmative action work?

I’ve been hearing a lot about the book Mismatch by the UCLA professor Richard Sander, which in its title alone states that affirmative action actually hurts ethnic minorities. I’ve re-written this sentence so many times because there’s so many things to consider when talking about his study, but since I want to actually post something, instead of giving up when it turns into a 20-page long rant, I’ll just quote and link to this article:

“For many years, Sander and Taylor argue, it wasn’t clear whether large racial preferences benefited their recipients (by providing a positive peer group) or harmed them by subjecting them to what the authors call “mismatch,” where teachers aim their classroom instruction at median students and those with weaker preparations fall behind, learn less, and self-segregate into easier classes. But now, the authors claim in the book and in their Supreme Court brief, it’s clear that mismatch effects predominate: The beneficiaries of affirmative action are less likely to take classes and to graduate in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), although in their initial applications, they expressed interest in those fields at rates similar to whites. For Sanders and Taylor, the lack of a critical mass of minorities in the STEMs classrooms isn’t something that can be remedied by affirmative action; it’s something that’s caused by it.”

(http://www.tnr.com/blog/plank/108427/affirmative-action-solution-even-conservatives-should-love#)

I think culturally diverse college campuses are important. But I agree, I also am not sure affirmative action is the way to get there. I don’t think we should stop trying to have racially diverse populations, simply because students are “mismatched,” we just need to figure out a better way to “match” racially diverse students. Is affirmative action that “match” process? Well, after listening to Professor Sander talk about it on the radio and reading several articles on the study, I’m inclined to say no.

Onto the next question.

Should race even be considered for college admission?

This is a topic that I think about often. It is the somewhat conflicting and confusing issue of self-identity and the desire for people to be recognized as complex, and not boiled down to just one attribute (that is, not just your gender, your ethnicity, your profession, etc.) Let’s face it, we take pride in our identities. Self-identification is a very important part of human psychology, it allows us to feel connected to one another and to continue to make connections with others. But I think most people would resent being boiled down to just one of their many identities. I would not want to solely be known for being female or Chinese-American. I’m proud to be a Chinese woman, but that’s not the total sum of who I am. And I think the same applies to college admissions.

I think what we want is for college students to be assessed on a variety of levels. I think race can be a factor, but how much of a factor is going to be difficult to determine and will require more studies like Mismatch. We may never hit that sweet spot, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

So that leads to my third question.

How did U of T do?

I think they get bonus points for trying. For trying really hard. Did it work? That’s what has to be determined right now. Does this mean affirmative action is bad? Not necessarily, but maybe that perhaps it’s not the most effective way to achieve culturally diverse college campuses in this day and age. I think what comes out of this lawsuit, as difficult as it is to wrestle with some of these questions, are conversations that are doing exactly what is needed to ensure an equal society. We may be a long way from that ideal society, where the color of your skin has no impact on your opportunities in life, but at least we’re trying.

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