Weighing in on the affirmative action debate (again)

9 May

I recently listened to the Intelligence Squared debate on the proposal “affirmative action on campus does more harm than good” (http://intelligencesquaredus.org/debates/past-debates/item/1054-affirmative-action-on-campus-does-more-harm-than-good), and I found myself thinking about how we’re having this national conversation, in its various iterations.

What struck me is the persistent premise that affirmative action is somehow different from business as usual in the world of college admissions. That the whole process of admissions isn’t informed by bias in favor of and against individual applications, based on group identity. That, in fact, admissions is fair. It’s affirmative action that isn’t.

I think part of this positioning comes from our sense that affirmative action for historically (and currently) underrepresented groups is an increasingly outdated response to an increasingly distant inequality. In other words, that discrimination isn’t an issue anymore. OK, it was a problem then (back in “the day”), but things are fair now, right? Wrong. The subtle but persistent and overwhelming advantage of being white when it comes to consideration of one’s merit is real, alive and active. Let’s just consider the phenomenon of aversive racism, which research and anecdotal evidence suggest is going strong, even as more blatant racism has been on the decline (http://www.yale.edu/intergroup/PearsonDovidioGaertner.pdf). Aversive racism is “a form of [racial] prejudice characterizing the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of the majority of well-intentioned and ostensibly non-prejudiced [white people who live in communities] in which overt forms of prejudice are similarly recognized as inappropriate.” This kind of racism finds the most fertile ground in ambiguous situations, when, for instance, the merits of a white and a black candidate are more subjective; this subjectivity allows for racial bias to swing in favor of the white candidate without ever having to name race as a significantly influential consideration. And while this research has focused on mechanisms of racism, there is ample research pointing to parallels in how other systemic discriminations also work aversively, for example, Goldin and Rouse’s study “Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of ‘Blind’ Auditions on Female Musicians” (https://faculty.diversity.ucla.edu/resources-for/search-committees/search-toolkit/Orchestrating_Impartiality.pdf).

The field of aversive racism sheds light on another way we frame the conversation about affirmative action: folks who oppose affirmative action love to point to unqualified students who “struggle[e] to keep up in schools mismatched to their abilities” (Intelligence Squared) as proof that affirmative action doesn’t work. And folks who support affirmative action all too often agree to debate their point around this political bogeyman. But if this is what we’re debating, then let’s be clear that the problem isn’t affirmative action: it’s admissions processes that fail to generate diverse and qualified pools of applicants from which they can select a heterogeneous cohort of students whose abilities match the institution’s abilities (because let’s be honest: institutions have their own abilities and disabilities, just like people). The misapplication of affirmative action in some cases doesn’t mean affirmative action is inherently wrong. It means that we need to learn how to integrate the myriad of considerations and biases that go into the process of vetting applications, in order to best serve individual students, groups of people with unequal access to education, the college learning community as a whole, and the world into which these students will graduate.

What I’d like to hear more about is how affirmative action impacts the cases of students who are ambiguously qualified: the ones who aren’t clear admits, or clear declines. I wonder how the intentional consciousness of identity may balance the natural and pervasive tendency to favor normative groups and create fairer access to educational opportunities for the groups that we still discriminate against, based on residual stereotypes and prejudices that find some of their strength and persistence in our collective conviction that we know better and are over such petty prejudices.

Because FYI: we aren’t.


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