Column: The Case for a New Affirmative Action

Guess what? It turns out "the racial gap" follows us to college, and even beyond that.

  The Duke Class of 2003 Consortium on Financing Higher Education Senior Survey tells a familiar story: African-American students were least likely to have accepted a position (20 percent of African-Americans compared to 35-38 percent of other ethnic groups), and most likely to be currently searching for one (43 percent compared to 27-33 percent) after graduation.

  We are all in agreement that racial disparities in educational and professional achievement pervade our country today, but what we do not agree about is the method for tackling such a pernicious problem.

  Affirmative action has consistently been the "answer" relied upon by policymakers for the last few decades, but it has become exceedingly clear that race-based admissions and employment practices serve only as a band-aid on the racial gap that threatens to permanently tear this nation apart.

  In their new book No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning, conservative commentators Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research articulate a solid case for the persistence of disparities in educational achievement between whites and non-Asian minorities, particularly African Americans. The Thernstroms inform us that, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the black-white and Hispanic-white score gaps in mathematics have actually increased over the last two decades among eighth graders, and these score gaps continue to hover between 30 and 40 points. The most frightening aspect of the racial gap is that it cannot be explained by socioeconomic status; the disparities persist, and are often worse, for African Americans in higher income brackets, thus making the case for a class-based affirmative action very weak.

  This continued inequity, in the face of massive efforts at both public and private institutions to redress the damages of racial discrimination through affirmative action, is unacceptable. While everyone must recognize the inadequacy of affirmative action in rectifying these disparities, the major players in the political debate have consistently settled for tweaking the existing wallpaper solution without broadening the discussion into the systemic inequalities our country faces in primary and secondary education.

  The recent Supreme Court decisions in the two University of Michigan cases struck down an undergraduate point system that quantified race in admissions while upholding a more ambiguous law school policy that made race less prominent in the decision-making process. While affirming the use of race to create a more equal, more informed society, the high court's rulings have forced many large public universities to trade an openly discussed measure for more furtive and more time-consuming ways of incorporating race into assessment of the often-unmanageable volume of applications, and they have shifted the focus of politicians away from whether affirmative action is actually helping to achieve its stated goal of leveling the playing field between whites and non-Asian minorities.

  In No Excuses, the Thernstroms briefly acknowledge the well-documented discrepancies in school expenditures between high-minority and high-white districts, yet quibble away "such a modest deficit" in explaining the racial gap in skills and knowledge. Instead, they assert the widely held assumption that African American students perpetuate a culture of "acting black" that places too little emphasis on educational achievement.

  While the Thernstroms may be misguided in the emphasis they place on disparities in education finance, at least part of their message is clear: African Americans (and to a lesser extent Hispanics) face a cultural problem, one caused by stereotypes. Affirmative action, as it is currently practiced, only serves to perpetuate the notion that non-Asian minorities must always be held to a different (and lower) standard, and--just like preferential admissions policies for the children of wealthy donors--existing affirmative action policies demean the achievements of African Americans and Hispanics. The only difference between minorities and the trust fund kids is that we can't see everyone's personal bank statement.

  Further, affirmative action obscures important differences among minority students, lumping all "people of color" into one huge, disadvantaged junk pile. As a result, these minorities are peremptorily categorized as stupid or unworthy, without regard for the many minority students coming from educated or wealthy backgrounds.

  In 1996, federal justices threw out a University of Texas law school's race-based admissions policy. Under the leadership of then-governor George W. Bush, Texas legislators interpreted that ruling to ban affirmative action everywhere in the vast university admissions setup. The political solution, not surprisingly, was a diluted form of affirmative action, giving the top 10 percent of high school graduates automatic acceptance into any state college of their choice, including the flagship campus in Austin.

  Five years after the appellate court's decision, the percentages of African American and Hispanic students at UT-Austin have recovered almost to their previous levels. More than 14 percent of the Class of 2006 is Hispanic and about 3.5 percent is African American; still, these figures fall far short of the 30-percent Hispanic and 12-percent African American composition of Texas.

  The supreme irony in the Texas Top 10 Percent plan is the manner in which it exploits the segregated nature of the public schools in the state, and the way in which it "gets rid of race" in admissions simply by recognizing that Texas does a horrible job of educating its African American and Hispanic students from the very beginning of their time in school. It is about time we stop trying to fix our deeply rooted social problems with these cosmetic cover-ups.

  We can start with an overhaul of affirmative action: an extremely gradual and tentative phase-out that can only take place with a strong commitment towards educational equality and the vigilant documentation of minority progress throughout primary and secondary schools in the country. President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act has taken bold strides in its efforts to disaggregate testing data by race in order to identify schools where the racial gap is worst, yet the sweeping accountability standards provide no plans for equalizing the resource disparities between high-minority and high-white districts. To be effective, this new affirmative action must not just equalize resource levels among districts, but it must overcompensate for the historic disservice done to these communities. "Equal resources for unequal needs" is no form of racial egalitarianism.

  You need look no farther than this campus for evidence of these racial resource disparities. The Class of 2003 Senior Survey tells us that 75 percent of African American students, compared to 39-41 percent of Asian and Hispanic students and 30 percent of Caucasian students, indicated institutional aid was a major source of funding for their college education. Moreover, about a quarter of African Americans indicated they were graduating with more than $30,000 indebtedness, compared to 11-12 percent of Asians and Hispanics and just 4 percent of Caucasians.

  With the possibility of President Bush appointing new conservatives to the Supreme Court, and with school districts across the country bringing law suits against the educational shake-up caused by No Child Left Behind, the 2004 presidential election will be one to watch for the future of education, and for the development of true affirmative action in this country.

  Philip Kurian is a Trinity junior. His column appears every other Monday.


Share and discuss “Column: The Case for a New Affirmative Action” on social media.