When President Kennedy first proposed affirmative action in 1961, it was revolutionary, and, like any revolution, it sparked conflict that resonates to this day. This fall, Harvard faced a lawsuit from a group representing Asian-American students, accusing them of using race-based applications that discriminate against Asian Americans. The topic, if anything, has only gotten more contentious and frankly, it’s time to reevaluate the efficacy of affirmative action.
Affirmative action, “an active effort to improve the employment or educational opportunities of members of minority groups and women” (Merriam Webster) was started to alleviate the effects of the racist policies of segregation and the lasting effects of slavery. It was meant to give traditionally disadvantaged minorities the same opportunities as those who didn’t have to contend with the same struggles to get to the same place. Affirmative action has been criticized for being racist, for disadvantaging certain minorities, and for being unnecessary in a “post-racial” world. But whatever your opinion on affirmative action’s fairness, perhaps it’s time to examine whether it’s even accomplishing what it set out to.
“Affirmative action is a way of rectifying the wrongs of discrimination and segregation,” said Boston Latin School sophomore Ruth Shiferaw. “White privilege still exists...Especially seen in the rise of hate crimes in the past few years, implicit and explicit biases against minority groups clearly remain to this day. Therefore, affirmative action should continue to be implemented in hopes of balancing the playing field between those who have constantly had an advantage, and those who have been pushed down.”
Many who believe in affirmative action’s goals nevertheless want reform. “I believe in the message of affirmative action,” said recent Boston Latin School graduate Ting Li. “The massive disparities between urban and suburban schools, redlining of districts, and other discriminatory practices...is indicative of a systemic failure in our education system, which is rooted in racism that has yet to fade. Affirmative action is…[only] a band-aid on a grave wound.”
Diversity isn’t just a number, but affirmative action allows colleges to tout percentages as signs of inclusiveness. If different groups of people aren’t equally set up to succeed, the impact of diversity is only nominal. Getting into a college is only the first step. Colleges are not consistent with supporting minority students throughout their academic career.
More individualized application processes and active efforts to assess and create cross-cultural interactions and support on campus need to be universal equity measures. The National Institute for Transformation and Equity created a five-part metric for equity measure efficacy, which asks about opportunities for students to connect with their cultures, contribute to their community, communicate across backgrounds to solve real-world problems, among others. In addition to implementing practices reflective of these measures, colleges should also start earlier and invest in low-income communities. Extracurricular college-preparatory programs are hugely beneficial to students. Such programs could be a great way for college students to put their work to real-life action as well. Students in teaching programs could set up after-school programs; students in engineering programs could help build playgrounds. While getting rid of race-conscious decisions might not be an option in a race-conscious world, affirmative action needs to be only one in a series of steps. Equity is a big fight, and we’ve got to be committed to fighting it.