Let's Get PoliticalAffirmative Action: Is It Fair?Jessica Tholmer

I graduated from a wonderful university that I am increasingly proud to call my Alma mater. My SAT scores were not impressive–I have never been a fan of standardized test taking (though I am jealous of the essay questions on today’s SATs!) and I honestly did not prepare the way some people spend their entire high school lives preparing. My grade point average was good, but the three written essays I submitted along with my application are what I swear ensured my admittance to dear Western Washington University. I am a smart girl. Though I seem ditzy at times, it is all a part of my charming master plan, I promise.

Do you know how many times I was asked throughout my college career if I “used my Black” to get into college? I hope you are horrified that I was prompted even the one time, but the truth is, I faced that question fairly regularly. The truth is, any minority student probably has to answer those questions. For white students pursuing a higher education, it is assumed by society, their peers, everyone, that they were admitted because they worked hard in high school and they will likely go far contributing in the world. Even if this cannot possibly always be true, white students are given the benefit of the doubt.

“Affirmative action” was first enacted under President Kennedy in 1961 and has developed throughout the years to include not just race, but gender and sexual preference, eventually reaching a Supreme Court decision in 2003 that allowed colleges and universities to consider race upon acceptance into the higher educational system. Basically, this means that colleges, to create a greater range of diversity, are allowed to accept a minority student with decent grades over a white student with a 4.0. Naturally, the subject opens a world of dispute in our country. (There are other countries who have similar rules intact, as well.) Is it fair to accept someone into a school based on their race? Is providing minority students with a “better chance of acceptance” unfair to white students who have to rely solely on their grades, not their culture or the color of their skin?

Once again, the Supreme Court is looking closely into affirmative action laws in school based on a program at the University of Texas. Many believe the decision is under heat again because Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the author and leader in the majority ruling for affirmative action, has retired and Justice Samuel Alito, her successor, has always been publicly wary of the ruling in the first place.

With five of the Supreme Court justices on record opposing the 2003 decision, we need to ask ourselves: is it fair? Race and education are two of the indefinitely hot topics raised not just during an election year, but consistently in our country’s history. Touchy subjects, fiery opinions and sensitivity across the nation make this particular subject particularly unpredictable.

To be fully honest, this is one of the few issues in which I can truly appreciate both sides of the argument. But personally, I support upholding affirmative action. (Surprised?) Yes, it is slightly offensive and unclear for both minority students and white students, for there is not a spot on your college acceptance letter that informs you, “Welcome to our University, because you are of Latino descent! Come diversify us!” nor do those unaccepted get a reassuring pat on the back that if their family had not hailed from Ireland, they would totally be in. I get that it seems unjust, I get that it sucks to have to work harder to prove yourself just because someone else is getting a leg up based on their ethnic background.

But (and here is where it gets controversial) I would argue that almost all minority students are born with less of a chance than white students, across the board, in all aspects of their (our) lives. It is harder to be taken seriously as a young Black male when the stereotypes are against you from the day you are born. It is much harder to be provided with the proper resources when you are a young Mexican woman who society looks down upon automatically. No, I do not think everyone and every institution is guilty of discrimination, but yes, I believe that stereotypes are still strongly in place and make it incredibly difficult for minorities–especially lower class minorities–to achieve the dreams we are all supposed to have a right to dream.

I am a bi-racial woman hailing from a very poor family. I was a first generation college student who had no resources or support in my family because everyone else was struggling just to not be harassed walking down the street. I had little parental support and almost no adult influence beside a few teachers I connected with at my high school. I graduated college in four years with an alright GPA, lots of debt and a ton of pride. I wish the same for my brothers, maybe one day. I can almost guarantee they would not be accepted into any university without that convenient leg up. Call it “using your Black” if you will, but my oldest brother is one of the smartest people I know–smarter than almost anyone I went to school with–and he would need as much support as possible because of his background. Young Black men are not taken seriously in this country, period. No argument. Affirmative action may be unfair, but it is unfair in the right direction. Until we can pull ourselves together as a country and stop discriminating based on ancient roles set by our forefathers, I wholly support affirmative action in higher education, as I hope our Supreme Court continues to do so.

And for the record, Washington state law does not support affirmative action regarding acceptance into college, therefore I was admitted into my school with no regard to my race. I write a mean essay. Go Vikings.

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  1. Unfortunately racism truly does still exist today and while affirmative action does feel unfair at times to non-minorities, I agree that until America gets its act together on the racism front extra help towards minorities is definitely a positive thing. Great article, I never thought of it from that side of things before.

  2. My solution to the affirmative action problem would be to create an affirmative action system based on economic status, not race. Because of years of institutionalized racism this will naturally help students who are a racial minority, but ensure that it is truly helping the students who grew up at a disadvantage. Under the current system, a black student with the same advantages I had (and sometimes more because neither of my parents completed college) would get into a school over me. This does nothing to increase a school’s diversity because a black or hispanic student growing up in my same upper-middle class suburban neighborhood isn’t any more diverse than I am. Affirmative action is supposed to both give a chance to a student who grew up with less opportunities AND create a culturally diverse student body, because that is the type of environment that will breed respect and great ideas. Making it based on economic class will accomplish both while eliminating the question of “using your black” to get into a school. It’s very hard for a high school student to think big picture in terms of affirmative action being good for the country as a whole when she’s left wondering why she was rejected from a school, but I think re-framing it in a way that is clearly helping the students who need the playing field leveled a bit in order to get a fair shot can help to alleviate the personal sting some feel about the issue.

  3. I like serious Jess. I can dig it.

  4. Some of the things you say are very problematic, like “Young Black men are not taken seriously in this country, period. No argument.” This is simply not true- perhaps racists and other ignorant people don’t take them seriously, but (as a privileged, white, Ivy League-educated woman) I do. People of all races are taken equally seriously at my college. Most educated people are not discriminatory, and thus take “young black men” seriously, because we don’t see them any differently. If anything, I take them more seriously because as you point out, some of them (though not all- there are privileged minorities) had to overcome disadvantage. So it’s really not fair to say that they are not EVER taken seriously. Over-generalizations are problematic.

    Second, saying “Affirmative action may be unfair, but it is unfair in the right direction” is also not valid. Fairness is fairness, and if someone is being discriminated against, then it is not fair. Think about two students- one is white, middle class and has an absolutely stellar academic and extracurricular record. This girl has had access to a decent school system but has done all the work herself. The second applicant comes from a similar home but has mediocre grades. Because she is a minority she should she be preferred over the white girl? I understand the fundamental logic behind affirmative action, but this simply isn’t fair. Just as you wouldn’t want to get rejected from a school for being black, I don’t want to get rejected for being white.

    Skin-color should not matter in admissions. College admissions should consider an applicant’s background in terms of what they had to overcome in order to reach their high level of academic achievement, but disadvantage should not take the place of excellence. I do not think judging someone based on the color of their skin is constructive.

    • Bless you, Jess. Because I’m going to say NOPE, NOPE, NOPE to this. This is not about you, Lauren. Just because you say that you see everyone equally (which is problematic in itself) doesn’t mean that Jess’ statement doesn’t have any validity. Racism isn’t about personal opinions and feelings. It’s a system of privilege and oppression. You say that educated people aren’t discriminatory, but who do you think is running the system? It sure isn’t a bunch of uneducated white folks. Affirmative action is in place to correct a wrong – that wrong being the systematic oppression of black and brown folks for years that contributes to contribute to the disparity in opportunity between PoCs and white people. You said skin color doesn’t matter, but that school’s should consider a student’s background and the obstacles that they’ve had to overcome. That is logically inconsistent. Unfortunately, skin color is an obstacle. I feel like I’m going in circles here, so in conclusion, a Chris Rock quote: “I don’t think I should get a job over a white person if I get a lower mark on a test. I don’t think I should get into a school over a white person if I get a lower mark on a test. But if there’s a tie – f*ck em.”

    • I like the word “constructive.” Good use for it. I appreciate your comment because, as I stated, affirmative action is ridiculously controversial, and rightfully so. I respect your view wholeheartedly, and as I am biased due to my background as an underprivileged struggling minority, you may consider that you are biased as a self-proclaimed “privileged, white, Ivy League-educated woman.” You are absolutely correct that overgeneralizations are dangerous, and perhaps I should have rephrased that portion of my argument to say that I have never seen young Black men taken seriously in this country. To every argument, there is a counter-argument, and I can cite plenty of “successful,” therefore likely “respected” Black men in America, our President being one of them, but that does not change the fact that as a whole, that specific group of people (still referring to young Black men) are respected in this country. Are we going to claim that women as a whole are treated with as much respect and dignity as men in this country just because I can name hundreds of examples of women that may be on the same level as men in our eyes? (Mostly political, again.) Having one-offs does not prove a point. I am sure you do respect young Black men, maybe even admire their struggle, but unfortunately (because you seem very intelligent and well-spoken), you do not hold the majority view of this country. Neither do I. And that is probably a good thing. :)

      Like I said, I appreciate your comment, I always love hearing the other side of the story. There are many unfair aspects of life, I am recognizing the debatable unfairness of affirmative action, though I am also accepting it.