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April 13, 2001
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"Why is affirmative action in universities so unpopular when it seems to be working so well? Statistical studies show that the policy has improved racial diversity not only in the classrooms but later in life, in business and the professions, as well, and contributed to improved understanding among races." New York Times Op-Ed: Race and the Uses of Law. Will the Supreme Court decide that racial diversity is a compelling educational need that justifies affirmative action? Should they? (Educators are invited to contribute.)
posted by sudama (35 comments total)

 
There is no doubt that affirmative action improves racial diversity. However, how does racial diversity create a better learning environment in a university? Based on my experiences, people from similar backgrounds and similar races still tend to hang out and congregate amongst themselves, leading me to wonder how exactly that contribute anything to the university?
posted by gyc at 3:57 AM on April 13, 2001


Ummm, it's unpopular because people tend to dislike receiving unequal treatment because of the color of their skin. Hint: it bothers white people too.

Some of us want admissions policies based on silly things, such as academic merit. That's simple to ensure by removing any race indicators by separating applicant names & addresses from applications during the approval process.

When certain races are underrepresented you solve that issue with programs that target those groups while they are still in high school -- to generate interest, improve test scores, or provide the means (financial aid). Whereas, if you do it after-the-fact by admitting students because of race you create a great deal of resentment that is carried on later in life.

How? Affirmative action students don't work in a bubble. When you study with anyone who struggles because they're not equipped with the skills to survive college (e.g., they are taking a host of remedial courses), affirmative action casts doubt.
posted by fleener at 4:34 AM on April 13, 2001


The issue is hardly whether it "works" or not, but rather whether it is right to discriminate in public schools in the first place, no matter what the intentions and results are.
posted by frednorman at 4:37 AM on April 13, 2001


Speaking as a university student, I'm all for equal opportunity, but I hate affirmative action. It's discrimination.

The goal of affirmative action is to "redress past discrimination…through measures to improve…economic and educational opportunities." I don't see how racial diversity figures into this. If a student does well, he should be treated as a good student from a university. His race shouldn't factor into it.

Unless one views affirmative action as an opportunity to get back at white people, what's the point? Or is that the point?

Maybe I don't know the best answer, but a fair system is what we need.
posted by gleemax at 4:41 AM on April 13, 2001


gleemax,

the problem is that you need to consider institutional racism. whether it's the fact that universities tend to admit children of their alumni, which perpetuates a white, upper-middle-class student base, or the fact that a disporpotionate number of students of color live in low income areas, and consequently, attend schools with little funding. Achievement, and ability to achieve given adequate facilities/conditions cannot necessarily be attached to things like test scores. With the pitiful state of US education, particularly in some big cities, I think that affirmative action, while possibly not the perfect answer, is the best answer that's been proposed.

and frednorman, I think that one could argue that there _has_ been discrimination in US public schools, for centuries really, and that affirmative action is simply a step to curb that, however artificial the step may feel.
posted by chacal at 4:58 AM on April 13, 2001


Affirmative action seems to hide the problem after it's occurred. Why not improve education at the early years, grade school, high school is way to late) so that when grades and test scores are considered there is no longer a gap based on economics.
posted by Mick at 5:24 AM on April 13, 2001


Without affirmative action at universities, thousands of African-American students would have been deprived of an opportunity that others take for granted.

At the school I graduated from, the first African-American student wasn't admitted until 1954. That kind of institutional racism had to be corrected in some form, and I think admitting a disproportionate number of minority students was a good solution.

Apologies to Gleemax, but it's real easy to be in favor of "equal opportunity" as not as nothing is done to actually equalize things.
posted by rcade at 5:41 AM on April 13, 2001


Oops: "as long as nothing".
posted by rcade at 5:41 AM on April 13, 2001


rcade: Apologies to Gleemax, but it's real easy to be in favor of "equal opportunity" as not as nothing is done to actually equalize things.

You seem to confuse equal opportunity with equal outcome. Non?
posted by frednorman at 5:55 AM on April 13, 2001


Memo to sudama: The horse is still dead. It's been barely two weeks...
posted by m.polo at 6:21 AM on April 13, 2001


So why is it better to discriminate in college admissions instead of inspiring, educating and assisting in high school? American society is all about reacting to problems after they occur instead of working on prevention... be it affirmative action, medicine or the legal system.
posted by fleener at 6:23 AM on April 13, 2001


Is this really an issue of whether it's better to focus on before or after solutions? It seems to me affirmative action has nothing to do with saying it's better to react than prevent. It is instead part of a solution. Yes, improvements must be made to equalize education at the primary and secondary levels, but part of changing the current structure requires some retroactive remedies. And as the article said, affirmative action does serve its purpose in at least allowing a variety of worldviews access to the discussion.
posted by maller at 6:41 AM on April 13, 2001


had it not been for affirmative action, i would not have been able to go to college. it wasn't a matter of whether i lacked "academic merit" or the interest, because i had plenty of both. it came down, as so many things do, to affluency.

while in college, i met many people who didn't have the "academic merit" to be there, yet were there because their parents were wealthy and white. a deserving minority student (or even a deserving caucasian) could have been there instead.
posted by tolkhan at 7:58 AM on April 13, 2001


Isn't the real problem that college is too damn expensive?

It's almost impossible for most students to attend college except through scholarships. If the student has no opportunity to get them, then (s)he's fscked.
College should be accessible to all students; there would be no need for the (discriminatory (imho)) practice of affirmitive action.
posted by sonofsamiam at 8:15 AM on April 13, 2001


So long as we continue to make decisions regarding higher education based on race and colour and not merit - for anyone - we do justice for no one. There should be a standard, equally applied to all, because there should be equal opportunity to reach that standard when it counts. But the debate on how to make that happen is, alas, for another thread.
posted by Dreama at 8:24 AM on April 13, 2001


Why is it that universities have such strict entrance guidelines? Why should you be excluded from attending a particular university if you're able to pay for what it costs them to have you there?

Does it not make sense to have an acceptance process for those seeking financial aid, but allow anyone with the means (money) to afford the school, attend the school? Maybe you say that's what JCs are for, but I don't see why I shouldn't be able to attend Harvard if I can cover the university's overhead caused by my presence there. Sure this excludes the poor and most likely propagates the rich, white, student body, but it makes sense to me.

Someone please give me another angle on this.
posted by physics at 10:25 AM on April 13, 2001


Physics: I think the reason why schools don't just accept anyone that can write a check is that it would directly affect the quality of the education. Most of my classes are graded on a curve compared to other students, and if that happened, my classes would get a lot easier. Also, there might be a need for many more remedial classes if schools accepted absolutely anyone. That's not to say that the people that are accepted to good schools are any smarter though...
posted by gyc at 10:46 AM on April 13, 2001


physics: Part of the reason for the guidelines is that there are enough people interested in attending and able (financially or academically) that they have to restrict entrance. Even a large school can't have an extra couple thousand students showing up in a given year, as it would put too much strain on resources.

As it is, there are a number of schools where financial aid candidates are put in a separate category, so that those applicants with enough money do have a better chance of getting in. But you have to draw the line somewhere. A university can only grow so quickly, so they will either have to charge more or raise the entrance standards. Further, as gyc pointed out, students do not learn in isolation from each other; the average level of student ability affects class pace and difficulty, and thus also the overall quality of graduates.
posted by warcode at 11:00 AM on April 13, 2001


I don't think academic merit alone is the solution. It tends to favor the affluent (who already have it easy), and moves more of the problem back to primary and secondary education, a much bigger problem we're long from (if ever) from solving. There was a recent report on SAT scores, and how the only correlation that can be made to higher scores was parental income.

What if, instead of race, income level is the determining factor on integrating admissions?

There are plenty of smart people born into the lower class that can never afford college, have had a poorly-funded-public-school education, but they're perfectly capable of performing well in college.

After institutional racism, classism is the next big problem at universities. If policies were to move off race, and focus on getting a good mix of income levels into colleges around the country, I think we could get all the benefits of affirmative action and more.
posted by mathowie at 11:22 AM on April 13, 2001


I agree that this should be treated more as a class issue than a race issue, however . . .

There are plenty of smart people born into the lower class that can never afford college, have had a poorly-funded-public-school education, but they're perfectly capable of performing well in college.

The problem I have with this is that part of being "capable" comes from an adequate educational background, which is so closely tied to parental income. While the early schooling problem is harder to change (due to scale and inertia), I think that targeting it is the only way to ultimately solve what's going on in the universities. Otherwise, by introducing quotas, you are passing off the responsibility of making these students "capable" for college to the colleges themselves.

And of course, you'd get the side benefit of more proportional representation in other places, like workplaces and prisons.
posted by warcode at 11:55 AM on April 13, 2001


Physics, there are "strict" entrance guidelines because we are talking about advanced education. If you stick people who need remedial courses (e.g., need to learn what they did not learn in high school) into college that person/people will A) do very poorly and/or B) slow the pace of the instruction down and thus reduce the amount of material that needs to be covered. That's why courses have prerequisites. There is a minimum amount of knowledge required for any college course. If no prereqs are required, it is assumed you at least have a high school education (and that you earned good grades in high school and are generally competent).

That is why academic merit should be the deciding factor in admissions. If you want to eliminate race disparity in college, fix the problem at the high school level because that's the source. Simply admitting more minorities to increase their representation does nothing to address whether those people are qualified. If you started admitting white people who don't have the proper academic standing would see the same problem caused by admitting people primarily based on race.

For me, college was my first lesson of the real world -- everyone, including the government, -- discriminates.
posted by fleener at 12:01 PM on April 13, 2001


It's the sort of thing we see all over in our politics. It's an easy answer. It's too hard to provide good education for everyone, so we let our school system go on as before, with the white, suburban schools sucking less than the inner city schools, so we make the standards flexible to create diversity -- falsely. Because actually solving problems is too difficult.

It's sort of like the controversy about trying minors who commit violent crimes as adults. It's outrageous, but we decided it was easier than fixing the juvenile system to deal better with minors who commit serious offenses.
posted by dagnyscott at 2:34 PM on April 13, 2001


From what I can tell from the US education system -- my gf's mother teaches in inner-city schools -- the damage is done long before college even enters the equation, as fleener's already pointed out.

But if you say "we have to fix the schools"... well, who's going to take on that responsibility? If you float the oh-so-American idea that "communities raise themselves by wanting to better themselves", the flipside is that it's easy to say "well, they can't fight their way into college/the professions, so they don't deserve to."

It's as if the script demands that every black American who succeeds has to emerge from the ghetto, fight against adversity, blah fucking blah. "Keep the schools in minority areas underfunded and ghettoised, so that there's a chance someone may succeed against the odds." It's perverse, it's sanctimonious, and it's scandalous.
posted by holgate at 5:33 PM on April 13, 2001


I can understand the reasoning behind affirmative action, but I definitely can't justify its execution.

The goal should be to make public schools efficient and accountable, not just throwing "more money" at it. From Kindergarten to 12th grade, students and teachers need to be held accountable for their performance. When that happens, the playing field will be more level when college time rolls around - then those who are deserving will be justly rewarded.

(I also hate the lamentations of standardized testing being unfair, I feel it's a way of saying the tests are "too hard". boo-hoo.)
posted by owillis at 6:39 PM on April 13, 2001


Again, fixing the problem requires more than simply dismissing affirmative action in favor of going to the root of the problem. Primary and secondary ed is important, yes, but the question at hand is whether affirmative action is justified in academia. It seems obvious that aa is part of the solution, and a necessary component at that. If nothing else, a range of viewpoints is critical in college.

(There's more to the standardized test issue than a simple boo-hoo dismissal. There are serious problems regarding what is actually being tested, whether any of it is an accurate reflection of future performance, the obvious financial factor. There is a subjective factor that definitely favors certain groups over others.)
posted by maller at 8:11 PM on April 13, 2001


chacal: the problem is that you need to consider institutional racism

Who says I haven't? I just don't see this as being a "solution" in any way, but just more discrimination from the other side to "even out" the results. We need to fix the problem, not screw more people over.

Achievement, and ability to achieve given adequate facilities/conditions cannot necessarily be attached to things like test scores.

I never said it was. If the kid can learn, and he's ready for college, let him in...if not, he shouldn't be in college yet. Or at least not that particular college.

I think that affirmative action, while possibly not the perfect answer, is the best answer that's been proposed.

Like I said before, we need a fair system, without discrimination based on race, income, etc. If our government moved toward distributed wealth, at least the monetary gap would be narrowed. People need stop self segregation. Like gyc said, most people of different ethnicity tend to group together. I don't see affirmative action as an "answer." I think it's just one more problem we'll have to deal with at some point.

rcade: Apologies to Gleemax, but it's real easy to be in favor of "equal opportunity" as long as nothing is done to actually equalize things.

I don't know how to take this comment except as an accusation of racism. I try to treat people fairly, I try to be nice to my neighbors...I see myself as part of the solution, not part of the problem.
posted by gleemax at 2:04 AM on April 14, 2001


maller: Again, fixing the problem requires more than simply dismissing affirmative action in favor of going to the root of the problem. Primary and secondary ed is important, yes, but the question at hand is whether affirmative action is justified in academia. It seems obvious that aa is part of the solution, and a necessary component at that. If nothing else, a range of viewpoints is critical in college.


I'm glad it's obvious to you that affirmative action is part of the solution, but how is simply accepting affirmative action any better than simply dismissing it?
posted by gleemax at 2:17 AM on April 14, 2001


gleemax: My apologies for not making my argument clear. The key was when I said but the question at hand is whether affirmative action is justified in academia. The argument posed in the original article was whether affirmative action serves its purpose in diversifying the classroom, which it undoubtedly does. It has to -- diverse student body = diverse viewpoints. In that sense, aa is justified. While "obvious" was obviously too strong, it seems at least likely that to change the current social structure we need to force change at all levels of the spectrum.

Do you not agree with the original's concept of making equality more genuine? As a teacher in a very economically privileged area, I see the distinct advantages that money and parental education have on kids. Is there hope of change without aa? Doesn't that just leave everyone stuck in something of a predetermined track? Just curious.
posted by maller at 6:30 PM on April 14, 2001


I don't know how to take this comment except as an accusation of racism.

That wasn't my intent at all. What I was responding to was your claim to be in favor of "equal opportunity," which often is voiced by people who have absolutely no interest in affirmative action or any other plan that might actually equalize things.
posted by rcade at 12:54 PM on April 15, 2001


maller: Do you not agree with the original's concept of making equality more genuine?

I agree with the idea behind aa, but not the route it takes in realizing that idea.

maller: Is there hope of change without aa?

Of course there is. I think the question is whether or not aa is helping the situation or widening racial gaps even further. I think it's discrimination, and it's making things worse.

maller: Doesn't that just leave everyone stuck in something of a predetermined track?

I think what's needed is time for people to change. How long ago were blacks property? How long ago were people fighting for their civil rights? The way we're headed, aa is a roadblock, not a shortcut. I think all it will take is time.
posted by gleemax at 9:18 PM on April 15, 2001


People are fighting for their civil rights today, gleemax. There is no sweeping tide of history that's going to bring justice to the oppressed. Every gain has been fought for and won.
posted by sudama at 2:22 PM on April 16, 2001


A day (or three) late and a dollar short, but...

If you want to eliminate race disparity in college, fix the problem at the high school level because that's the source.

A quote from the NY Times Magazine (Jan. 16, 2000: "Schools Are Not The Answer"): "A study carried out in the early 80's at the University of Kansas reached the almost unfathomable conclusion that 3-year-olds in families with professional parents used more-extensive vocabularies in daily interactions than did mothers on welfare- not to mention the children of those mothers." (emphasis added)

Later in the article, a study cited in The Black-White Test Score Gap arrive at the conclusion that equalizing parental income and educational background accounts for a gap of only 2 or 3 points of a 17 point difference between black and white 5 and 6 year olds on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test. The rest of the gap was accounted for by socio-economic factors such as the size of household in which the child's mother grew up, the mother's sense of control over her life, and the child's birth weight, with the single largest chunk (3.5 points) accounted for by "middle-class parenting practices, such as reading to children, taking them on trips, and using reason rather than flat edict".

So what am I trying to say?

One: It is not enough to make schools (secondary and primary) better. In order to address vast educational disparities, it is necessary to change the condition of the parents; and this is partly addressed through college admissions practices that bring in students that have had fewer opportunities.

Two: For real change to be made in the lives of young people, overarching social problems must be addressed; ignorning these factors, or relying upon the marketplace will merely exacerbate the difficulties.

Three: Affirmative action has been used as a blunt proxy by college admissions to bring in students from different backgrounds that would normally not enter college. I think that it is time for colleges to adopt standards where the socio-economic condition as well as the home-life of children is used to help determine the worthiness of a student. You may still achieve the racial balance brought about somewhat by affirmative action as it stands today, but you will also bring about economic balance, and you will help break the cycle of dysfunctionality.
posted by Avogadro at 7:46 AM on April 17, 2001


sudama: People are fighting for their civil rights today, gleemax. There is no sweeping tide of history that's going to bring justice to the oppressed. Every gain has been fought for and won.

I never claimed otherwise. Is aa justice or punishment for the majority (or benefits for the oppressed)?
posted by gleemax at 12:25 PM on April 17, 2001


I think the article I linked provides a clear answer to your question. My post was an indirect rebuttal to your suggestion that "all it will take is time."
posted by sudama at 9:43 PM on April 17, 2001


I thought it was rather clear that I don't buy the article's argument.

I still think that all it will take is time. I don't see a need for reverse discrimination to remedy our problems. I look at our history, and I see monumental achievements that were made without resorting to such things. (I did not mean, as you took it, that if we sit back everything will fix itself. I meant that people will fix it, and without things like aa, which solve part of the problem while wholly ignoring the entire situation, and contribute to the same problem.)
posted by gleemax at 6:54 AM on April 18, 2001


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