Last month, the Supreme Court heard the case of Abigail Fisher, a recent Louisiana State University graduate who applied and was not admitted to the University of Texas four years ago. Fisher feels that the University of Texas’ affirmative action policies precluded her admission and brought this case before courts in the hope that public universities will take race out of admissions.
Though this is a court case involves admission policies of public universities, it is possible that the Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action could affect Princeton as well. If the court determines affirmative action to be a violation of the Civil Rights Act, insofar as it discriminates on the basis of race, then private institutions like Princeton would not receive federal funding as long as they continued affirmative action. This hearing has sparked a somewhat healthy conversation at the University. The claim which most stands out is that race-based affirmative action in favor of some races necessarily causes discrimination against people of other races. At the University of California at Berkeley, one of the most academically competitive public schools in the nation, 42% of students are of Asian or Pacific Island descent; only 12% and 4% of students are Hispanic and African American or Black, respectively. Would Princeton’s demographic trend this way were race-based affirmative action to be removed here?
We must be careful in our language regarding affirmative action. The policy is not to admit students who are unqualified or under-qualified because of their race. Indeed, Ivy-League admissions officers will often say that close to three-quarters of their applicants are qualified students. This means that race-based policies don’t substitute qualified applicants for unqualified ones. Rather, they become an additional metric by which Universities distinguish between the wealth of qualified applications which they receive.
Those arguing for on either side of the debate are pursuing certain goods. On one side, Universities are pursuing intellectual and cultural diversity for their student bodies, and also attempting to correct for historical and institutional discrimination against people of particular racial groups. On the other side, people like Abigail Fisher are seeking justice in the college admissions process and feel that affirmative action is a fundamentally unjust response to prior injustices.
Perhaps the first thing one must ask is whether affirmative action effectively fulfills its goals. Certainly we must not deny that in African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native-Americans have suffered historic and institutional discrimination. Then again, so have Asian-Americans and Irish-Americans, yet affirmative action policies typically do not benefit students of these demographics. One might contend that the nature of the discriminatory history of these groups is different, but the fact is that the spirit of affirmative action is to help enfranchise those who are disenfranchised today because of historical discrimination. If the standards of enfranchisement one wants to use are economic, race-based affirmative action ought to take a back seat to the socioeconomic kind. If the terms are truly social, one could contend (as Claire Jean Kim does in her paper, “The Racial Triangulation of Asian-Americans”) that people of Asian descent are most likely to be seen as social outsiders in the American political geist.
Perhaps then, the purpose of affirmative action is to increase intellectual and cultural diversity of student bodies. It’s important to argue (in another forum) whether diversity is in and of itself a good. However, even if it is, one is skeptical of whether simply admitting students of different racial backgrounds to a University can meaningfully increase the school’s cultural diversity. The plethora of student groups and activities makes it very easy to go through Princeton mainly interacting with students who are in many ways similar to oneself. Unless students themselves are committed to interacting with people of different backgrounds, cultural diversity will simply be superficial. It isn’t clear that affirmative action can resolve these deeper problems.
Let’s continue to talk about affirmative action in terms of the goods which it pursues and the other goods of which it comes at the expense. We should not quickly assume that its practice simply executes its stated goals effectively. Nevertheless, we also must not vilify students admitted under such policies; doing so is probably inaccurate under the light of the applicant-pools and definitely obstructive to the good conversation which problems like this can spark.
Toni Alimi ‘13