So What’s Wrong With Affirmative Action?


On 22 April 2014, John Fund at the National Review wrote, “Yesterday, the Supreme Court voted six to two to uphold the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI), which was passed with support from 58 percent of that state’s voters in 2006. It simply enshrines in Michigan’s constitution that the state should not engage in race discrimination. Opponents of the initiative sued, claiming the measure discriminated against racial minorities who might wish to lobby for preferential treatment.” Agreeing with the US Supreme Court’s majority, Mr. Fund took exception to Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent by stating, “Her insistence that existing affirmative-action programs don’t result in the admission of unqualified students — and effectively amount to quotas — is at odds with the facts.”

This case specifically addressed the issue of affirmative-action programs at the University of Michigan in which Michigan voters opposed the use of race as one of the elements for consideration in admitting students to its institution. In short, opponents of affirmative action characterize it as “reverse discrimination” and that it also stigmatizes the beneficiaries as being less qualified because they were chosen based on race as opposed to merit.

With respect to college admissions, opponents of affirmative action are disingenuous and hypocritical at best or, at worst, they have redefined discrimination as something that no longer happens to Blacks [at least not to any actionable extent]. I present several reasons for my assertions.

First, there is the matter of “legacy.” Students whose parents are alumni [especially if they have made donations to the college] are given an advantage vis a vis other students whose parents did not attend that particular college. This practice has as much to do with merit and objective decision-making as skin color has to do with morality. Legacy perpetuates the sense of entitlement — and often, by default, white skin privilege since more whites are college educated and have more financial resources than non-whites in America. To afford an advantage to those whose parents graduated from or donated to the institution is tantamount to buying that child a place near the front of the admission line. Legacy is a form of favoritism sanctioned by the elite. This being so, where is the outcry of discrimination from white students who are denied admission because another white student’s parents graduated from or are donors to that college? Is it more unfair to be passed over because of race as opposed to being passed over because of one’s parents’ alma mater — or lack thereof? Legacy is not borne of merit. Legacy is affirmative action for whites who were born into a status they did not earn.

Second, there is the matter of sport’s scholarships. It is painful to contemplate that a student who otherwise could not even qualify to clean the bathrooms at a college but can secure a full-scholarship simply because he/she can dribble a ball or throw a pass. Never mind if that person can barely multiply by seven or write a coherent paragraph about the economics of racism in America. Athletics are often a significant source of revenue for many colleges; athletes are often walking dollar signs. Thus, the college is faced with two choices: Offer full scholarships to students who would lack the facility to be admitted based on academics but who can generate thousands if not millions of dollars for the college by simply being good at running off-tackle or blocking a player from making a basket; or offer a full scholarship to a disadvantaged student who shows promise and could use the education to become a productive member of society. In other words, athletic scholarships benefit the college in the short-term. Academic scholarships benefit society in the long-term. To be sure, there are some athletes who are well-schooled and academically bright. Nonetheless, they are awarded a full athletic scholarship as opposed to an academic scholarship. Why? Could it be that though they are intelligent and have good high school grades, etcetera, they still would not qualify for a full academic scholarship? Money trumps merit almost every time.

This is where the hypocrisy can have revolting consequences. Most of those college athletes do not go on to play professional ball and too many are still academically ill-prepared for life in a capitalist society. These athletes generate revenue for the university but more often than not, they do not lead lives that are as productive as other students who gained entrance based on matters other than legacy or athleticism. The universities use them and then dismissively discards them. The leaders at the college perform a fundamental calculus: Invest thousands of dollars in an athlete and earn a huge return for the institution or invest in a non-athletic student and allow society to earn an even greater return. The college may assert that it does both because the options are not mutually exclusive. Both options would be on equal footing, however, if the athletes were also academically on par with non-athletes at the college.

So where is the outcry about sport’s scholarships? There is silence because there is too much money to be made. Where is the outcry from white people about scholarships being offered to black athletes [no doubt at the cost of some white students who could have used that scholarship money to become a physician or a CPA]? The answer to those questions can be inferred from a poster plastered around the streets of an old nineteenth century southern city: “Wanted: Dancers, singers, musicians … All others considered dangerous!” It is fine for blacks to entertain. People love to hear us sing and watch us entertain, but if we choose to pursue something other than entertainment, then we are often short-changed — we are considered dangerous or at least less worthy than our white counterparts. Colleges are big businesses that often mimic their Wall Street cousins for whom money is both the Alpha and the Omega.

Also, consider this: According to the Department of Labor and the Center for American Progress, data [from 2012] clearly indicate that white women were/are the greatest beneficiaries of affirmative action. This may come as a surprise at first thought but upon further reflection it makes perfect sense given that the task of distributing or sharing resources in a non-discriminating manner, lies primarily under the purview of white males. If people of color and women have historically suffered discrimination, then it would be typically human for those charged with implementing anti-discrimination legislation to favor those most like themselves — white, first — because color trumps gender — then, white females.

Last of all, there is the matter of racism in these United States of White America. Opponents of affirmative action [both white and black] will often quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words in which he longs for the time when a person “would be judged by the content of his character and not the color of his skin.” The problem is, many studies indisputably reveal that blacks are more often than not still judged by the color of their skin. To deny the prevalence [albeit less overt than during the old Jim Crow era] of racism is to deny facts as plain as five plus four. Chief Justice Roberts stated that to end racial discrimination, one must stop discriminating, hence, affirmative action or consideration based on race must be proscribed. I agree with Justice Roberts except that too many Whites have not stopped discriminating. That is the problem. If affirmative action is reverse discrimination, then it is discrimination in reaction to discrimination by those who are best served by it. Once the dominant group stops discriminating then there would essentially be no need for affirmative action [pejoratively called, reverse discrimination]. So, I ask, where is the application of MLK’s words on the part of those in power to determine who gets to enjoy resources and those who do not? Why is it that those words are invoked when whites feel discriminated against but there is silence when whites exercise White-Skin privilege at the expense of those whose skin is not white?

Or, we can address the argument of reverse discrimination from a different perspective. One person described this “argument as nothing more than semantic smoke and mirrors.” She explains: “There’s discrimination for something (presumably “positive” such as when countries like Germany pay reparations for a select group—Jews, in this case) and discrimination against something (presumably “negative”). But the narrative confuses the two and so have folks like Ward Connerly, Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas and others championing the dismantling of affirmative action. (Ira Katznelson’s book, “When Affirmative Action Was White”, is a good reference, as is Randall Kennedy’s, “For Discrimination: Race, Affirmative Action, and the Law”).” In short, discrimination is not always baleful; it can be a positive action to correct a negative one. But those in the position of privilege are not willing to pay the short term cost. Do not be confused: The kind of affirmative action that the courts have struck down is not one of two wrongs [discrimination and so-called, reverse discrimination] trying to make a right.

Without question, there are many whites who are not racists and who actually fight against it at every turn — sometimes to their own detriment. But not enough of them do. Which is why there is persistent disparity in sentencing [and the enforcement of law], in compensation, in employment and housing as well as education. These facts are as real as the earth spinning around the sun and not vice versa — Justice Roberts comments notwithstanding. If education is one of the gateways toward equality then abolish legacy and award scholarships based solely on academics and other criteria that are not associated with privilege or physical prowess. And stop discriminating at the front end so that there will be no need to take corrective action at the back end. If no consideration should be given to race when applying for entrance into college, then none should be given to legacy or a person’s athleticism. But this is not likely because the status quo has a specific utility as does having a permanent underclass.

So what’s wrong with affirmative action? What is wrong with affirmative action is the Supreme Court’s recent decision regarding the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative because that decision constitutes a tacit sanctioning of affirmative action for some and the blatant rejection of it for others. This striking down of affirmative action is a way to resolve the cognitive dissonance borne out of racism by denying its prevalence so as to prop up the status quo that favors the privileged.

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