Why Affirmative Action Is So Important

This week the Obama administration correctly chose to support the right of universities to incorporate race into their admissions decisions. Affirmative action is a complicated and distortionary social policy but its message and presence is too important for it to be discarded, as some opponents of the policy have suggested. What is needed instead are multi-level policy adaptations to incorporate a more all-encompassing and long-term approach to equalizing preparation levels and enhancing performance.

A slew of recent editorials on the subject of the policy’s purposes and successes have helped underscore the need for affirmative action. They have also established that university officials and the judiciary need to rethink affirmative action and redress its negative perversions.

Opponents to affirmative action have also been plentiful. For instance, the administration’s decision stood in marked contrast to George Will’s opinion piece in this week’s Washington Post. Will was highlighting the case now being considered for review by the Supreme Court regarding racial preferences in university admissions. Will and several others have expressed doubts as to the greater diversity argument’s benefits and the efficacy of affirmative action.  

Will is right to hope the Supreme Court decides to hear the case since the consequences of affirmative action are not as straightforward or remedial as some had hoped. Yet is too hasty to reject it altogether. 

Will argues that that the “liberal” diversity argument belies the harm that befalls minority students due to an affirmative action phenomenon known as academic mismatch. This mismatch occurs when minority students admitted to universities in spite of their lesser academic preparation fall behind. These students are more likely to fail out than their white counterparts, particularly in the sciences, and will self-segregate to what Will deems the “less-demanding classes.”

While the mismatch does pose significant obstacles for higher overall student performance, the diversity-as-beneficial argument, and, of course, the success of minorities in and after college, this alone does not seem to be reason enough to discredit the practice and its symbolism.      

Will and similar pundits seem mostly concerned with the symptoms or partisan politics of this systemic national issue. Affirmative action is not perfect and critics make valid arguments particularly regarding the situation for minority affirmative action recipients once admitted to higher education. Yet doing away with it is not the answer.

Affirmative action has been responsible for helping to clear a path largely hampered by persistent disadvantages and discrimination. A temporary solution for righting social ills and policy failures requires not only redressing the symptoms of such discrimination but also better adapting the current university environment to match the needs of minority students and non-minorities falling behind. This includes bringing academically mismatched students up to speed and providing engaged support, particularly in the sciences, throughout the college years.

Finally, Will is wrong to conclude that diversity in and of itself will not necessarily enhance the greater learning environment. There is much to be gained by a diversity of experiences. American universities and their graduates are more enlightened by an appreciation or acknowledgement of situations foreign to the majority white, middle class American experience.

Photo Credit: U.S. Navy

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Elizabeth Laferriere

Elizabeth Laferriere is the Legislative Director at the San Francisco Department on the Status of Women. Her research and professional interests include women’s equal right to work, political participation, and social justice, as well as US foreign policy toward South and Southeast Asia. Ms. Laferriere received her MPP in Public Policy from Georgetown University, where she studied international policy as the Wellesley College Margaret Freeman Bowers Graduate Fellow. She spent an exchange semester at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. She received her BA in South Asian Studies and History from Wellesley College, where she graduated with honors in 2010.

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