Positive Discrimination (AKA, Why Affirmative Action Should Be Banned)

If the Supreme Court decides for gay marriage and against race-based affirmative action, my 2013 will be made.

I’m sure anyone who has read my blog for more than a week knows how I feel about gay marriage. Affirmative action, on the other hand, I haven’t addressed. Maybe it’s because I’m in the midst of college admissions season, or maybe it’s because I’m feeling frustrated from a lack of sleep, but the absolute unfairness of affirmative action – and the fact that so few are saying anything about it – drives me to publish this post.

I hear people say all the time that race-based affirmative action is supposed to ameliorate past injustices. That’s almost completely inaccurate – instead of healing past wounds, it’s opening new ones. Statistics show that Asian-Americans, and to a lesser extent, Caucasians, are disadvantaged in the college admissions process solely because of their race. They have to attain better test scores, grades, and achievements than African-Americans and Hispanics. Several of those receiving benefits from race-based affirmative action never even experienced segregation or slavery, and either way giving preference to one race over another perpetuates the cycle of prejudice. One should never think that their race, sexuality, or gender alone merits low self-worth or low intellect. Adversely, one should never think that they get a free pass just because they’re of a certain skin color.

Another common argument is that affirmative action helps the underprivileged. Now, I am 100% supportive of need-based affirmative action. If someone has had to spend most of their time working to help their parents pay the rent instead of having time to study, they do deserve some help to even the playing field. But race-based affirmative action, in this context, makes no sense. You can have an astonishingly wealthy African-American teen whose mom is a doctor and whose dad is a lawyer, and you can have an Asian-American teen whose parents are both janitors. For the African-American teen to acquire any sort of advantage in this case – and in many other cases – is simply ridiculous. Any person with money can buy SAT review books, SAT prep courses, tutors to help with their college applications, etc. irrespective of their race. It’s the financial factors that truly establish the disparities between who is disadvantaged and who is doing well enough.

Affirmative action decided in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke in 1978. I’m sure the Supreme Court had good intentions – they wanted to eliminate racism and give everyone an equal chance. But the exact opposite is occurring now. Everyone deserves an equal chance, but several years have passed, and blacks and Hispanics are receiving more than an equal chance. What began as a moral equalizer has become an ironic mistake of the education system.

Now, I don’t want anyone to be calling me racist – I don’t have anything against blacks or Hispanics or whites or purple-colored people. It’s just that I have many half-white and half-Asian friends, and I always feel a mixture of frustration and sadness whenever they check off “Caucasian” on their college applications because it will help them get in. It’s horrible that they have to – and want to – hide a part of their cultural identity, just because it will make it easier for them to get into a good college.

Don't get me started on the SAT - that will require a completely separate post. Image via eduers.com.

Don’t get me started on the SAT – that will require a completely separate post. Image via eduers.com.


Filed under Society

22 responses to “Positive Discrimination (AKA, Why Affirmative Action Should Be Banned)

  1. gabriellelost

    THANK YOU. Agh.

  2. sam

    Have I told you lately that you are an absolute genius Thomas? I totally agree with everything you said here. Just out of curiosity what are your views on affirmative action based on gender? I have mixed feelings here because I feel like at this point women don’t truly need it yet the statistics still show women being paid less on average and so on. But I miss you so much! And I enjoyed reading this post!

    • Aw thanks Sam! Once again, I do not think affirmative action should be gender-based either. Males and females should be on equal ground when it comes to college admissions – it’s how driven they are, how intellectual they are, and how much they would be able to contribute to the college that matters. I’ve read some articles stating that girls are actually more competitive than guys in terms of college apps, actually, but I don’t have any 100% accurate facts to back that up.

      It’s unfortunate that women get paid less on average, but that should be fixed on its own – by ensuring that women do get paid the amount they deserve to be. I feel like it’s a non sequitur to say “oh, women get paid less, therefore they should be given an advantage in college admissions” just like it’s a non sequitur to say “oh, blacks were enslaved, let’s give them an advantage in college admissions.” These are issues that need to be tackled head on, not indirectly through benefits in other areas.

      • Sonia

        Oh my gosh Sam, I was going to ask Thomas the exact same thing. Thomas, what about when girls are applying to the STEM field? It’s a well known fact that there is a huge gender gap in this area of study. (http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd/tables.cfm) You say you don’t like affirmative action because its reasoning is that we are making up for oppressing certain races. I agree that is causing more problems than it is solving, because like you said, some of these races have not even experienced segregation in the US. However, there are clearly still persistent gender stereotypes in our school system: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/curriculum/2012/02/girls_like_biology_boys_like_p.html
        I don’t know if colleges do this, but what about affirmative action for females in the STEM field? It is important to encourage female enrollment in these areas of study to increase the number of female scientists, so do you think because the gender gap is clearly a visible problem, it would be okay for colleges to do that?

        • Hm I have a lot of developing thoughts on this so I’ll try to make my response as coherent as possible.

          Obviously, I support female scientists. I think it’s important that they have equal opportunity to explore the subjects they enjoy and to embark on journeys in the fields they find suited to their abilities. However, I don’t think they should receive preferential treatment JUST because they’re female. If both genders receive the same opportunities and chances to get into the field but males are shown to have stronger abilities/intellectual qualities in science, then that’s just how it works out. With affirmative action, statistics show that blacks/Hispanics with lower SAT scores than Asians/whites get into the same colleges while the latter are rejected – obviously there’s more to an app than scores, but the disparity cannot be a coincidence.

          Basically, it depends on why the gender gap is a visible problem. Is it because we really are discouraging females from the science field? If so, we should try to get them more interested in fostering their passion for the subjects from the start. The fact that a gender gap – and just the fact itself – isn’t a problem, at least to me. Sure, guys may like to take Calculus BC, while girls prefer AP Lit. But if guys and girls have the choice to take either course, then I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

          On a random note, I find the second article you linked pretty funny, as I contradict the statistics almost entirely – I’ve taken and enjoyed AP Lit, Psychology, Biology, and AP Lang over AP Physics, Comp Sci, and Music Theory. Interesting.

  3. Elaine

    Thank you so, so much for this post. So many of my socially liberal friends will spout the benefits of affirmative action without looking at any of the consequences /at all/, and it is incredibly frustrating. Because yes, as you’ve stated, they (and you) have faced more discrimination than Caucasians like myself can even pretend to claim, and we’re still trying to balance that – just, it seems, in the wrong ways. I also read the comments on gender, too, and I admire you so much for sticking to your point. Education should be about the desire and drive to learn – it’s why the fact of college prices as high as they are is so ridiculous, why the idea of athletic scholarships to primarily academic institutions is so infuriating, and now, why the concept of affirmative action is unjustified in almost every way. I didn’t even think of the cultural erasure, but boy, that’s a biggie, too. I’d love to see more of your opinions of the educational system in America, and am personally looking forward to a separate SAT post, ha.

    Something in the area of comparing biological sex, I might add, is that there are verifiable differences in the way our brains function due to the differences in structure. Does this mean women can’t do well mathematically, or men can’t do well in the fields of language? You’re evidence yourself that obviously – /not in the slightest/. Does it mean, however, that on the whole there might be different attractions to different subjects on account of how we’re biologically fashioned? Perhaps. There’s not enough research yet, in my humble opinion (though you’ll find loads of articles on google, if you’re so inclined, ha), but there is a definite possibility that the STEM gender gap is not some big, evil construct of society designed to keep women like myself from following their scientific dreams, but something innate, for the exact same reasons that biological sex is important to determining what kind of medications you receive and the like.

    And as such, we should focus on what we want to study, what interests us, what ignites our passions – if you’re a male and that’s theatre or physics, if you’re a female and that’s (speak of the devil) chemistry and screenwriting, then I say go for it, and don’t let any silly admissions processes tell you what you can’t achieve because of your sex, your gender, your sexuality, the color of your skin, how many toes you have, or if your name is Norbert.

    /endrant 😉

    • Yeah I know, a lot of teens these days say that they support things just because they think it’s the “good thing” to do, without really contemplating the consequences of such things. I have many thoughts about several things within your comment, specifically about the price of college and athletic scholarships, but I’ll save those for future posts. Basically, I agree with you 100%. (:

      As for how biology may affect how we think or what subjects we prefer, I agree that if our gender predisposes us to certain fields or areas, then that’s just the way it is. Like you said not everyone will adhere to the biological/societal norms but if they do it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Girls shouldn’t be forced to pursue math and science just because there are more boys doing it, and boys shouldn’t be forced to pursue English and art just because more girls are doing it.

      Chemistry and screenwriting? I can just imagine you at W&M studying such subjects – I’ve heard great things about their science department, even though others lampoon it compared to UVA’s. To be honest I can’t wait for the admissions season to come to a close, you must feel relieved that you’re finished! Thanks for sharing your thoughts, as always.

  4. I agree – I find it very strange that in many countries there is a law saying that companies must recruit at least 5% black employees or 35 % women (these are just random percentages for the sake of the example). Therefore, the employer must sometimes hire someone just because the law says he must have a certain race or certain gender in his company… instead of hiring someone who is actually good for the job. In order to create equality in society, we must all be given equality of opportunity from birth, to allow us all to grow and develop and learn by the best of our abilities. It’s a bit too late and quite pointless to ‘positively discriminate’ at university or job level.

    • Yeah, that is a weird and inefficient practice. It’s unfortunate that so many people are disadvantaged, but assigning advantages based on race/gender/sexuality/etc. doesn’t do anything but add to the problem. If someone is positively discriminating, that still means that they’re discriminating, and there are others who aren’t receiving their fair share. Thanks for reading and commenting!

      • Eileen Chen

        It is harder for women and African Americans to a) get a job, even with a degree, b) get equal pay as their white male counterparts.

        “-Women earned less than men in all 20 industries and 25 occupation groups surveyed by the Census Bureau in 2007 — even in fields in which their numbers are overwhelming. Female secretaries, for instance, earn just 83.4% as much as male ones. And those who pick male-dominated fields earn less than men too: female truck drivers, for instance, earn just 76.5% of the weekly pay of their male counterparts.”


        – In 2011, women made up 31.9% of all lawyer but 11% of the largest law firms in the U.S. have no women on their governing committees, and women partners constituted only 16% of those partners receiving credit for having $500,000 worth of business or more.

        – And despite the earnings premium that comes with greater education, women with bachelor’s degrees earn less over 15 years than men with a high school diploma or less, according to the IWPR study.)
        Read more: http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1983185,00.html#ixzz24WCUUd2S

        Women of color were more likely than any other group to experience exclusion from other employees, racial and gender stereotyping.44
        -Women of color were most likely to consider leaving the firm. 45
        • – Another recent study found 11.0% of associates are women of color. 51
        • Only 2.0% of partners were women of color. 52

        • But do all of these statistics constitute employing women solely based on the fact that they are women? Yes, as a gay guy, I know how tough it can be to be in the minority – but the fact that women are hired less with equal experience should be tackled head on. Affirmative action where companies are REQUIRED to hire a certain number of women or a certain number of minorities irrespective of their race is not the right answer. Everyone should be hired based on their qualifications. Perhaps there should be regulations ensuring that women who are experienced and capable get the jobs they deserve, but their shouldn’t be an umbrella over all women saying that “hey, just because you’re a woman, you get to be hired.”

          • Eileen Chen

            ..Since when does affirmative action work like that, though? Have you done research in to seeing how colleges consider race/gender? All applications still need to meet a set of requirements before getting in/even getting considered. It is like people say, “Oh you are female! You automatically get in!” A better analogy is: if there are two *equally qualified* candidates, one African American and one White, then the African American one will be chosen.

            I put in the statistics to show that women and POC have trouble getting hired/equal pay, so companies/colleges NEED quotas to ensure their whole company isn’t just like, white males.

            Okay..let me put this analogy to you, using TJ applications (haha, which is universal to all Asian Northern Virginian kids). So, right now, there are like 2% African American/Hispanics kids at TJ, most who wouldn’t be there with out Affirmative Action. So, is it unfair that they got in? No. Because those kids still passed the initial TJ test AND, statistically, they probably didn’t go to all the TJ Prep classes possible and get like, 5 billion people to (illegally :P) edit their personal essays like Asian kids did. So yes, all the applicants probably had the same economic background, but Asians culturally have an advantage. Of course we shouldn’t punish Asian kids for having an advantage…but then should we let other races be punished for *not* growing up in a culture where there parents push them to do everything as possible?

            And even if you don’t agree with that…seriously, it’s 2% of the school. Only 2% of the school is not White/Asian. That’s actually really pathetic. Like, clearly there is something inherently wrong with that status quo that we need to change.

            And also, note, being a gay male doesn’t meed you understand the problems of all other minorities!

            • Okay, first, I must emphasize that I never said I understand the problems of all other minorities. I just said that I can understand how tough it can be to be a minority. I just want to make that very clear, because I would never say that anything I’ve gone through is nearly as bad as what others have gone through.

              First off, I have done my research in regard to the disadvantages Asian-Americans/whites/others who do not receive affirmative action benefits face (Michele Hernandez, a Dartmouth admissions officer, actually dedicates a solid portion of her book A is for Admission to it) and there are several articles in my post that also show this trend. Even in one of the links you provided me (http://usfweb2.usf.edu/eoa/aa_myths.asp) it states that unequal preference is used in college admissions.

              “First, of the four different procedures, the selection of women and minority members among equal or roughly comparable candidates has the greatest public support, adheres most closely to popular conceptions of procedural justice, and reduces the chances that affirmative action beneficiaries will be perceived as unqualified or undeserving (Kravitz & Platania, 1993; Nacoste, 1985; Turner & Pratkanis, 1994). Second, the selection of women and minority members among unequal candidates—used routinely in college admissions—has deeply divided the nation.” So, yes, it is used routinely among unequal candidates.

              And I find the whole TJ analogy seriously flawed when compared to college acceptance. Most selective colleges evaluate applicants holistically, not based on strict certain criteria. Yes, a 2400 SAT score will help you, but there’s no set cutoff SAT score that you have to get to get into a college. Studies have shown that African-Americans/Hispanics have lower GPA’s, SATS, etc. and manage to get in over others even if they are not economically disadvantaged. And overall I disagree with your TJ analogy because of all of the kids came from the same economic background and all had the same resources but the Asians took more time to edit their essays and go to prep courses, so be it. In that scenario, you can’t just assume EVERY black or Hispanic person came from a bad culture. Maybe some were lazy. I’m not saying that black and Hispanic people are lazy, but even in hypothetical situations like the ones we’re creating you can’t seriously believe that every black or Hispanic person comes from a culture that doesn’t promote education.

  5. Eileen Chen

    I severely disagree with almost everything said in this post, lol. If I had more time, I would further my arguments, but for now I’ll just leave you with this link: http://usfweb2.usf.edu/eoa/aa_myths.asp. Also, this commentn has sloppily written everything, so I apologize for that.

    I encourage all the comment-ers to research the benefits of affirmative action instead of just viewing it from his/her/zer own point of view and making such a stance on a complicate issue based only on personal experiences. Yes, Asian Americans have to do better on the SAT and get a higher GPA, but they also generally a) live with a family of higher income (which is the greatest determiner of SAT score, actually http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/27/sat-scores-and-family-income/) and b) receive better educations (http://www.apa.org/pi/ses/resources/publications/factsheet-erm.aspx), c) are encouraged my environment/culture to achieve and study more.

    And to be honest, I’m pissed that there is more discussion on how privileged White and Asian Americans students ~can’t get in to the college they want~ but no one ever talks about the culture/enviroment/discrimination African Americans live in/face and how to fix THAT, which would actually eliminate the NEED for Affirmative Action. But apparently we live in a post-racial America (heavy sarcasm).

    Also, Hi Thomas! Sorry I haven’t commented in a while, but I’ve been catching up on your posts and I’m sorry I can’t talk to you more.

    • Hi Eileen! I miss hearing from you! I hope everything is going well and that you’re still playing tennis and being the bright activist that you are. (:

      First, my post is primarily focused on affirmative action in college admissions. Keep that in mind. I don’t think that affirmative action in which preference is given to under-qualified candidates should be permissible in any setting, but my focus is mostly on college admissions. I still need to gather more facts if I want to write a super logical response/separate post for affirmative action elsewhere.

      Now, here’s the thing. Yes, Asian Americans tend to live in families with higher incomes, receive better educations, and are encouraged to study. But that doesn’t mean that RACE-BASED affirmative action should be allowed (I apologize for the caps, I wish I knew how to italicize in the comments.) Need-based affirmative action would effectively eliminate issues in regard to income, education, and study environments. In Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart he talks about how, when examining white families, class is what determines the education one receives. Education still plays a large part in how much money one receives. Race, on the other hand, may seem like a huge indicator of financial/educational success, but it’s really class that matters. So need-based affirmative action would ameliorate the state of our education in which the poor (and a lot, but not all) of the poor who happen to be racial minorities.

      Now, I’m not sure if you’re directing your comment about discussing white and Asian kids getting into college more than black families and what we can do to help them, but I’m pretty sure if the Supreme Court just rules out affirmative action we can proceed to more pressing issues – which is the same way I feel about gay marriage (but I want gay marriage to pass, obviously.) I don’t think we live in “post-racial America” – and yes, I understand your use of the term was sarcastic – but that’s exactly my issue with race-based affirmative action: it’s putting certain races at a disadvantage, which I do not approve of.

      • Eileen Chen

        Haha, I quit tennis, but I’m still the ~token feminist ~ who no one wants to piss off.
        I can’t articulate everything right now (argh homework!) but I will come back to this later (did you read the first link? The link explains this exact point!).

        • Several of my friends are feminist, and quite a few of them agree with me on this point. (;

          But it’s okay, I’m flooded with homework too and still writing here – discussion is fun! And yes, I did read that link… and I cited it in my response to one of your comments! I hope you’re doing well too, I’m so glad you read this and are arguing so passionately!

  6. Eileen Chen

    Also: I don’t think Affirmative Action is perfect and I differently agree that the it creates a huge blacklash, but it is necessary.

    • Eileen Chen

      1) Race and poverty are tied together. The intersection of privileges (or un-privileges) is called intersectionality.
      2) Giving a level playing field for admission (ha, I typed emissions at first) assumes that everyone has a level playing field before getting there and a level playing field after leaving college. Which is absolutely not true.

      • I agree that need-based affirmative action is necessary. Race and poverty may be tied together, but as you will learn if you take AP Psychology (or if you have already taken it/are taking it, not to be presumptuous) correlation does not imply causation. In fact, CLASS and poverty play are probably more tied together than race and poverty – and, because class and poverty are almost the same thing, at least in college admissions they can target class as they ask applicants to submit their financial information anyway.

        I’m not saying that everyone will have a level playing field. In life, there’s no such thing. But the playing field can at least be leveled a little bit, with the right amount of effort.

  7. Daniel

    Thomas, I have very much enjoyed reading your blog about affirmative action and the debate you have engaged in with Eileen Chen. What struck me most was just how much common ground we all share. In today’s society most people would object to rights and benefits being connected to factors beyond our control. Benefits of college places being distributed based on race was the point from which you started, and Eileen broadened the discussion to include gender and discrimination in the workplace. We all share the feeling of injustice, but differ on the justice of using affirmative action to remedy the situation.
    Firstly, because the injustice in cases of discrimination based on race or gender stems from factors beyond our control, consideration needs to be given to a range of such factors. While a number of colleges use legacy admissions to allocate places, little difference can be seen in the corporate world where appointments are made based on friendship, quid pro quo, and through word of mouth. These factors are not controlled by the individual, and yet it is through such connections many of societies benefits are allocated without drawing the attention of The Supreme Court. Even having scholarly parents, or a studious personality, or a good work ethic, are factors which we cannot claim as due to our own doing. Why then can we claim rights based on the factors beyond our control which serve our own personal interests best? What could be objectionable to positions being assigned according to factors decided by standards equally beyond our control? Affirmative action cannot be dismissed simply because it favours some arbitrary factors over others.
    Morally, we agree that discrimination based on gender or race is not right, whether it works to our personal advantage or not. Were there a practical way in which enforcement could effectively offer protection and compensation to victims of present-day discrimination, there would be no conflict. Lacking such a solution, affirmative action programs can be justified as the corrective measure which most effectively deals with discrimination. Such radical action could only be tolerable when discrimination is deeply entrenched (Beauchamp, 2004).
    Do we presently live in a society with such unacceptable levels of discrimination based on gender and race? Fitzpatrick (2010) provides some startling statistics to show that rates of pay are set on the basis of sex. This was shown to be true in industries dominated by men and industries dominated by women. A study carried out by Kristen Schilt and Matthew Wiswall (2006) looked at the experience of people who change their gender. Although the human capital remained constant, the earnings of those who changed to become women decreased significantly, while there was no change or a slight increase for those who became men.
    Beauchamp (2004) refers to a study carried out in Washington D.C. and Chicago to test employment practices. Whites and African Americans with equal qualifications were “identically matched for speech patterns, age, work experience, personal characteristics and physical build”, dressed identically and applied for the same newspaper-advertised jobs. The number of job offers which white men received was found to be three times higher than that of the equally qualified African American men. Discrimination against African Americans was described by the authors as “widespread and entrenched.”
    The practices which exclude women and minorities from benefits in today’s society continue without any consequences for the proprietors of such discrimination. Rather than being based on feelings of superiority and the wish to exclude, affirmative action aims to include groups of society which have been overlooked, stigmatised and treated unjustly for factors beyond their control. Although some may find compensation in affirmative action programs, the aim of these programs is to improve the position of women and minorities in society until it is fair. The seriousness of the issue means that it needs to be tackled head on, and that is precisely what affirmative action does. While it is not possible to right all the wrongs of the past, it would not be right to let the present discrimination continue in following generations (Richards, 1993).
    Although the studies referred to above concentrated on workplace discrimination, affirmative action in university admission policies can be justified by the same rational. Appointing unqualified females or minority members when there are other qualified applicants is neither legal nor what supporters of affirmative action propose (“Ten Myths”). To ensure the pool of well-qualified applicants includes women and minorities, the education system needs to make enough places available to these groups.
    Due to the entrenched and widespread discrimination based on gender and race in today’s society affirmative action programs are justified. Will there be some individuals who benefit and others who lose due to affirmative action programs favouring one set of arbitrary factors over another? Yes. In this way there is no change from the systems society uses today to distribute benefits. The only change is in which arbitrary factors are chosen. However no such program will exclude anyone based on factors beyond the individual’s control. Affirmative action is the most effective way to alter discrimination in today’s society.

    Beauchamp, T. L. (2004). Goals and quotas in hiring and promotion. In T. L. Beauchamp & N. E. Bowie (Eds.), Ethical theory and business (7th ed., pp.352-360). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education
    Fitzpatrick, L. (2010) Why Do Women Still Earn Less Than Men? Retrieved January 6, 2013, from http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1983185,00.html#ixzz24WCUUd2S
    Richards, J. (1993). The sceptical feminist. In G. D. Chryssides & J. H. Kaler (Eds.), An introduction to business ethics (pp. 336-342). London: Thomas Learning.
    Schilt, K. & Wiswall, M. (2006). Before and After: Gender Transitions, Human Capital, and Workplace Experiences. Retrieved January 6, 2013, from http://www.econ.nyu.edu/user/wiswall/research/schilt_wiswall_transsexual.pdf
    Ten Myths of Affirmative Action. (1997). Retrieved January 6, 2013, from http://usfweb2.usf.edu/eoa/aa_myths.asp

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