01 Sep 2003 The Mixed Blessing of Affirmative Action, by Matthew Craig
Endorsement of affirmative action policies that allow schools to continue using race as a factor in student admissions can, at best, be seen as a mixed blessing for the black community. But while the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledges that blacks should be guaranteed the opportunity to attend our nation’s best universities, their decision also carries the assumption that blacks can’t get there without preferential treatment.
Every American university wants the “cream of the crop.” They set their own standards, and only those meeting these criteria are offered admission. Less qualified applicants are encouraged to look elsewhere. This competitive environment means those who “win” admission have every right to be proud. It is an appraisal of twelve years of successful learning.
Affirmative action robs many blacks of this honor. Black college students who have worked diligently are praised, but are also forced to live with the uncertainty that their admission had more to do with the color of their skin than their academic merits. And those “helped” by affirmative action are similarly harmed. Through no real fault of their own, they may find themselves lacking the same skills as their classmates and must play catch up for much of their collegiate careers.
This might explain why the national college dropout rate is 20 points higher for blacks than whites. Blacks who would likely have succeeded somewhere else face uncertain futures at universities where they are unprepared, thanks to affirmative action.
The crux of the Supreme Court’s rationale – that bending rules to bring in more of a select minority group helps maintain campus diversity – actually creates the opposite. It engenders a new segregation. As a student at an Ivy League university, I see the psychological effects of this policy on a daily basis. Many students who do not benefit from racial preferences regard their minority colleagues as less competent. Numerically, diversity may be attained, but at the expense of the prestige blacks have worked lifetimes to achieve. Additionally, it discourages interracial communication.
What if the Court had ruled affirmative action unconstitutional? There would be an initial decrease in black enrollment at prestigious schools. This happened after racial preferences were abandoned at the top schools in the University of California and University of Texas systems. Ultimately, however, black enrollment at other schools in the states’ college systems increased. These students became the “cream of the crop” at those institutions.
Another drawback is that affirmative action allows the larger problems regarding education to be ignored, decreasing minority opportunity. Prior to college, blacks are disproportionately represented in under-performing public schools. The disgraceful state of such schools is hidden when their students gain admission to top universities for reasons other than educational merit. Reform of our public schools from the bottom on up would help produce more minority students who are able to compete for coveted admission at elite universities without the need of a crutch like affirmative action.
As it is now, affirmative action can perpetuate bad study habits. Even minority students motivated only by the intent of attending a prestigious university will not feel threatened to put in the extra effort required of many of their future classmates.
In his dissent on affirmative action, Clarence Thomas – the Supreme Court’s only serving black justice – quoted Frederick Douglass: “And if the negro cannot stand on his own two legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone!… [Y]our interference is doing him positive injury.”
Douglass believed blacks could only succeed when free. Affirmative action, Thomas implies, is not freedom. Freedom is succeeding on the merits of one’s accomplishments and not on one’s skin color.
Until racial preferences are abolished, the equality and freedom for which blacks have fought for decades will continue to evade us.