Racial group based affirmative action in US universities

Oscar A. Rudenstam 2012-08-31

According to the Daily Pennsylvanian the University of Pennsylvania recently joined other Ivy League universities in publicly voicing support for “race-based” affirmative action as a part of their student admission processes. This comes amidst the debate spurred by the upcoming Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin case before the US Supreme Court which originated in two women failing to gain admission to the university, something which according to the women themselves occurred due to the university’s racial group based affirmative action policy.

Racial group based affirmative action serves to give underrepresented racial groups a slight advantage in admission to universities, and is used by among others the Ivy League universities, to bolster diversity in student bodies. In practice, this generally makes it slightly more difficult for an Asian-American applicant to gain admission to a university employing the policy compared to a Hispanic applicant of equal qualifications. This could, given that you are of the right racial group, more than double your chances of being admitted to some institutions.

While some call affirmative action an ethically justified tool for improving student diversity at university campuses, others criticize it as a form of reverse discrimination. Indeed, one could argue that taking racial groups into account in admissions at all, in spite of any reason, contributes to the issue of distinguishing between people based on their racial group. As US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas insists, affirmative action contributes to a “cult of victimization” as it implies that underrepresented racial groups require different treatment to succeed. Racial group based affirmative action, critics claim, creates largely inequitable situations for applicants who are not consistent with their racial group in terms of their educational and socioeconomic background. Imagine for example an Asian-American applying to a university employing this kind of policy; since Asian-Americans are often overrepresented, it could logically be considered relatively difficult for her to gain admission if she does not share the advantages many of the other Asian-Americans have, advantages that essentially have nothing to do with them being Asian-Americans but rather due to their individual characteristics and cultural background growing up.

Some may argue that, in order to reduce problems of racial discrimination, we should seek to entirely avoid division of individuals into racial groups. In this view, racial groups as a concept in itself is found to be much too problematic for practical use as it fails to properly take into equation the fact that every individual is different and indeed that trying to accommodate racial groups with affirmative action is impractical and unjust. Contrary to using racial groupings in an attempt to pinpoint and facilitate problems in society, we should instead seek to counter those underlying problems that themselves provide incentives to those who advocate racial group based affirmative action. One might ask, if we should seek to eliminate division of people by purported race, how can you actually help a racial group? One simply has to redefine the problem; it is not a problem of racial groups, but one of cultural, socioeconomic and educational differences and inequalities.

One must know that racial group based affirmative action is only one kind of affirmative action. Other types affirmative action can concern factors such as gender, background or religion. Some other types of affirmative action may be viewed as more acceptable than the racial group based type, since they might pertain to aspects that are much more central to an individual and her identity. In contrast, one’s racial group often reveals little but the color of one’s skin or hair. We should however not forget that many other types of affirmative action, including types concerning gender and religion, are also to some extent subject to controversy and are equally deserving of scrutiny.

Is racial group based affirmative action justifiable? Should we be dividing people into racial groups? Each individual is entitled to his or her own opinion.

Oscar A. Rudenstam