unmasking affirmative action

unmasking affirmative action
image by dall.e 2

I have steered away from commenting on race matters here and even in my personal argumentative endeavours. Yet today, I find myself in a sticky position because I have taken up the responsibility of sharing my opinion on an assortment of weekly news in these diaries. For that, I find that the most attention-worthy news of this past week is the US supreme court’s (SCOTUS) decision to end affirmative action in college admissions… which, I must admit, left me with a melange of feelings, for reasons I will be discussing further along this entry.

In the two cases that instigated this decision, SCOTUS condemned race considerations in college admissions of Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, two of the oldest higher education institutions in the US. Under affirmative action, for Asian Americans to receive a recruitment letter from Harvard, they needed SAT scores of at least 1350 for women, and 1380 for men, while African Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanics required at least 1100.

It was the lawyers of the prosecution, an organization named Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), that brought these facts to light… leading to a detailed uncovering of what some consider racial discrimination, and others… affirmative action.

I pause here to reflect on the dual nature of affirmative action. While it aims to address historical disparities, I have long wondered about the extent to which this form of discrimination is necessary and fair.

Indeed every opportunity worthy of its name must be exclusive. Yet with educational opportunities in particular, it is imperative that the scholars selected are individuals who have evidence that the investment our educators will make in them, will pay off. Standardized test scores, though not perfect, provide one measure of academic aptitude, operating under the principle of cause and effect.

“You reap what you sow, more than you sow, later than you sow.”

An article by Inside HigherEd reported that Asian students had the highest average SAT Math scores, 635, and the highest overall, 1223. Black students had the lowest Math scores, 436, and an overall result of 946. A similar pattern was observed for ACT scores.

In a simplistic manner, one could argue that… clearly, one of these groups sowed more than the other.

What affirmative action meant to “correct” though, was the network of reasons behind this difference in sowing. There are 3 arguments one could take from these observations. 1) Asians must be naturally smarter than other minoritized groups 2) Other minoritized groups have much more challenges working against them than Asians 3) Asians are much more hardworking than the rest of us.

Let us begin with the first argument…

​​The SAT and ACT statistics temptingly, and falsely, reflect inherent differences in intelligence because the consensus in the psychological community rejects the notion of inherent IQ differences among ethnicities. IQ rankings, although largely dominated by Asian countries, are often created with little to no consideration of low literacy levels in other parts of the world and the validity and reliability of IQ tests — both of which trickle down to contextual differences.

This suggests that observed IQ gaps have an environmental (nurture) origin more than a biological (nature) origin.

Thus, the first argument attributing these disparities to natural intelligence is rendered invalid. However, it does open the door to the second premise I proposed: the existence of greater challenges faced by other minoritized groups, such as Blacks and Hispanics, which contribute to their lower average scores compared to Asians.

Asian Americans do have, on average, higher socioeconomic statuses… which indicates that they *might* be having an easier time pursuing their education in the states compared to other minoritized groups. 2018 Data from the U.S Bureau of Statistics clearly showed this… with, again, Blacks having the lowest average pretax income of about 49,000 USD and Asians, the highest, of about 93,000 USD.

This is a good place to introduce international students like myself… where, I need not compare GDPs per capita of most represented Asian countries in international college admissions with other countries, especially those from the African continent. By simply drawing parallels between Asian and Black applicants, it is evident that one of these groups is more likely to face greater socioeconomic challenges than the other… whose effects are perhaps observable in the average SAT and ACT scores I cited above.

Yet even with all these data, and more, I still feel some resistance towards admitting that affirmative action was the most efficient and fair solution. My sense here is that by promoting affirmative action, we are simply slapping a plaster on a huge snake bite. And at the risk of sounding overly dramatic – the poison is slowly spreading… and if we are not careful, it will reach the heart and spread to every organ, rendering us (other minoritized groups) victims for life… because neglecting the real roots of why we needed affirmative action in the first place could have long-lasting effects on marginalized communities.

So, yes, I am saddened that affirmative action has ended but I believe its absence has given us the opportunity to re-examine what needs to be done to face the reality of why children in other minoritized communities are not excelling as their Asian peers. The end of affirmative action is in some sense hinting at what I dream for with regard to Black communities especially, that is, a vision that encompasses the complete elimination of victim mindsets across all varieties, levels, and arenas.

And that is truly my issue… it’s that affirmative action, with all its benefits, maintains an uncomfortable sense of victimhood.

And though not openly discussed, people often assume that students of African descent, like myself, were admitted to R1 institutions primarily because of affirmative action, which is believed to prioritize racially-informed personal narratives over academic talents and achievements.

If, and because, there are gaps in the average quality of life among the minoritized groups, the presence of affirmative action was in no way closing in on this gap the way it was promised to us. A recent article by the Hechinger Report shares that the presence of Black students in colleges and universities has experienced a steady decline, seeing a drop of 7% between the 2010s and the 2020s.

Essentially, whatever it is that led to the need for affirmative action has clearly not been resolved.

With Bachelor’s degrees and lower levels of tertiary education, we may not be able to see this real failure of affirmative action… but with medical schools, law schools, and more, it is becoming apparent that black students are dropping out at significantly higher rates than other races. And when they make it to graduation… they almost always form the majority of the bottom of the class.

And I thought the argument was that if Black students had similar environmental conditions as, say, the Asians, then they would have just as high of academic achievement! As it happens, the necessary “environmental conditions” are beyond being in the same academic institution.

My sense is that the “environment” here, must mean something beyond the social… and into the cultural. It must mean an intellectual setting, one where one’s worthiness of a spot at Harvard (and the like) is directly proportional to their conscientiousness. It must mean instilling a clear understanding that our world is built on hierarchies (rightfully so) and if one must climb one of these hierarchies with integrity (need I justify this?)… one must not only be intelligent but also industrious.

While some psychologists argue that certain personality traits, such as conscientiousness, may have a genetic component, there is no credible argument for race being the determining factor in an individual's industriousness. Certainly, there are many forces working against minoritized groups, but the genes of laziness are not among them. Black people, for example, have demonstrated immense resilience and perseverance in the face of some of the most inhumane acts in history… clearly then, we (I am speaking here of all minoritized groups) have the capability to strive for increased access to higher education institutions, including elite institutions like Harvard… even without the support of affirmative action.

Now that affirmative action has ended, we have the opportunity to critically examine its effectiveness and unintended consequences. While it aimed to address real historical injustices and present inequalities, I hope I have shown you how it also perpetuated division and unfairness, which sadly justifies the cases brought against this practice.

I always stand on, and argue for, individual responsibility… in this matter, I add resilience. I also add a call to strive for a society where meritocracy and diversity can coexist harmoniously. Certainly, at the very least, we must want a world where opportunities are offered on the basis of talent and effort.