Affirmative Action and Assumptions of Merit

Opinion by Adam Johnson
Oct. 11, 2012, 8:23 a.m.

Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments for the case Fisher v. University of Texas. The case concerns Abigail Fisher, a white student challenging the use of race as one of many factors used to admit students to the state’s flagship university. A court challenge to racial preferences in college admissions is hardly a new development; affirmative action policies have long been challenged as unfairly discriminating against white and Asian students.

The justifications for affirmative action are numerous, ranging from a need for diversity to ideas about fairness and justice. Although the University of Texas will use only some of these justifications in defending their policy, they are all relevant to the broader popularity of affirmative action in college admissions.

One of the major critiques of affirmative action revolves around notions of merit. The Oxford English Dictionary defines merit as the quality of “being entitled to reward or gratitude.” At the core of this definition is the assumption that in a meritocracy, one deserves credit for positive outcomes (and its corollary, that one be blamed for negative outcomes).

We see implications of this assumption throughout our culture and politics. Your opinion on how much the state should tax income, for instance, will largely depend on whether or not you think workers are entitled to all or most of the income they receive. This assumption is certainly relevant in the Fisher case, as Fisher hopes that students “will be able to get into any school they want to no matter what race they are but solely based on their merit and if they work hard for it.”

What Fisher – and thousands of others – conveniently ignore is that the traditional considerations in admissions decisions (superior grades, test scores, and recommendations) are not solely determined by how hard one works. I like to think that I worked hard in high school, but I am also the first to acknowledge that I probably wouldn’t be at a top university had I not had plenty of good fortune growing up.

My family happened to care deeply about education, my school district is one of the best in the state, I had access to summer resources to further my education, I didn’t have to worry about street violence or personal health and much more. This is not to say I was never unfairly disadvantaged in my upbringing. I hardly read as a child, and perhaps stereotypes that my parents and teachers held regarding boys contributed to that. But as a whole, the advantages I received far outweighed the disadvantages, and as a result I grew up wondering not whether I would go to college, but which college I would attend.

Indeed, many recognize the role of socioeconomic factors in aiding or inhibiting a child’s academic growth. Some say, then, that we should replace race-based affirmative action with socioeconomic affirmative action.

While I agree that universities should consider an applicant’s socioeconomic status, I object to the conclusion that race is not a factor in academic achievement. Countless studies support the position that race still plays a significant role in questions of access. One study shows that when given comparable resumes, managers will offer white candidates interviews at much higher rates than their black counterparts. Another study found that white and Asian high school students were placed on higher tracks than Latinos and blacks with comparable academic achievements. And I still haven’t mentioned the idea of white privilege, which focuses on unearned advantages that whites accumulate on the basis of their skin color. These privileges range from having bandages that match the color of one’s skin to having members of one’s race as dominant presences in government, media and academia.

Affirmative action doesn’t have to be framed as retribution for past wrongdoings. If it were, then Asian Americans would surely have a strong case to benefit from such policies. Rather, affirmative action can be viewed as a way to correct for current societal flaws that give under-represented minorities less access to educational opportunities than whites and Asians, all other things being equal. People criticize affirmative action for giving special privilege to under-represented minority applicants without realizing that whites and, in recent years, Asian students have likely received educational privileges based on skin color throughout their lives.

Of course, this doesn’t mean we should necessarily promote affirmative action policies (they may, for instance, worsen the stereotypes that harm students of color). But acknowledging the deeper issues of inequality and access will start a conversation that would not only shed light on whether we should support race-based affirmative action, but could ultimately address the broader question of whether we are justified in rewarding some students for strong achievement while blaming those who do not perform as well.

Let Adam know about your unearned advantages by emailing him at [email protected].

Adam is a senior from Illinois. He is majoring in Biomechanical Engineering, although his intellectual interests span dozens of departments. This is his second year writing for the Daily (you may remember him from his work last year on the Editorial Board). Outside of writing, Adam enjoys acting, skiing, making music, and thrift-store shopping.

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