Challenging affirmative action could negatively impact racial minorities in college admissions
EDITORIAL | Debate is reignited
Published: Tuesday, February 28, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, February 29, 2012 14:02
On Feb. 21, the Supreme Court announced that it would take a major case concerning race in admissions at the University of Texas. Abigail Fisher, who was not granted admission to the University of Texas, Austin under a state law known as the Top Ten Percent Plan— guaranteed college admission for the top ten percent of high school students—claims that this was due to reverse discrimination. Fisher's case is weakly supported but has brought the debate on affirmative action back into the limelight. Unfortunately, the newly conservative composition of the court might encourage a shift in the existing sympathetic policies toward affirmative action, greatly affecting the opportunities of racial minorities in college admissions.
First coined in 1961, the term "affirmative action" was used to describe measures taken to prevent racial discrimination in both the school and the workplace. At a commencement address at Howard University in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson said: "You do not take a man who for years has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race, saying, ‘you are free to compete with all the others' and still justly believe you have been completely fair." This statement still rings true today. Minorities have been and continue to be marginalized. Expecting people at a stark disadvantage to compete with other, more advantaged citizens is simply misguided. "We seek not just freedom but opportunity…Not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and as a result," President Johnson said. Affirmative action ensures that equality does not remain an empty term, but rather becomes an American reality.
Fisher is not the first person to challenge her college rejection under the pretense of reverse discrimination. In 1978, the University of California rejected Allan Bakke, while granting admission to minority applicants with lower scores. The Supreme Court, after deliberating the potential dangers of affirmative action, ruled in favor of affirmative action. While race would remain a legitimate factor in college admissions, the Supreme Court underlined that the standards of entrance to a school must remain consistent. A school can take efforts to ensure that diversity is maintained, but not at the expense of academic standards.
Today, an individual is considered within his or her context when applying to a university. GPAs and test scores set the bar, but admissions officers consider a myriad of other factors, of which racial and ethnic background is essential. Even then, the system can hardly be accused of unfairly promoting minorities. Admissions officers consider how a student can contribute to the school environment and racial diversity should be a welcome contribution.
With its goal of providing equality of opportunity, the debate for affirmative action has extended to another type of minority, the low-income. While race has historically been intertwined with class, this is not necessarily the case anymore. That the children of wealthy minorities should enjoy the same benefits of those who truly need them is unreasonable. In fostering this debate, supporters of affirmative action must reconsider the adaptability of this measure to the definition of disadvantaged or minority.
The effects of affirmative action, though significant, have not been transformational. In 2003, affirmative action was re-evaluated with the case Grutter vs. Bolinger. Justice Sandra Day O'Conner continued to advocate for diversity, stating that it "encourages lively classrooms discussions and fosters cross-racial harmony." After this ruling, the case was put to rest for the next 25 years or so. By agreeing to hear Fisher's case, the Supreme Court has reignited a discussion that had, after re-examination in 2003, promised to remain stable in the view of the progress left to make.
Officials from the University of Texas have, in fact, stated that Fisher's academic rating and SAT scores were not up to par with the applicants granted admission to the University of Texas. They added that Fisher cannot prove that race was a factor at all in the admissions process. Even more unreasonably, Fisher has asked for her $50 nonrefundable application fee back. That the debate on affirmative action was reopened on such thin arguments points to the current conservative composition of the Supreme Court.
Ultimately, what underlies the fears of students like Fisher is tenuous at best. Competition to get into prestigious universities is fiercer than ever and no applicant is even considered if he or she does not meet the established requirements. So, though affirmative action indeed lends a hand to disadvantaged minorities, it certainly does not do the job for them.