By JohnCarl McGrady, Editor in Chief
At first glance, affirmative action may seem unfair and even racist. Lots of people oppose it, arguing that every year, hundreds of young, intelligent high school students are denied admission to top schools in favor of students with worse grades, worse test scores, and worse qualifications, who are accepted because instead of being Asian or White, they are Black or Hispanic. When a group of Asian-American students denied admission at Harvard sued the University, backed by a conservatie legal strategist, it just seemed to bolster this rationale. Eventually, the students lost their suit, but the controversy remained. Many people were left unsure of what to think, asking the same question: what’s the real story with affirmative action?
Colleges use affirmative action, or race-conscious admissions, to make sure that their classes are somewhat representative of the racial profile of the country as a whole. Even with this, top tier colleges have a much higher percentage of Asian-American students than the country as a whole, and sometimes, though not often, also have a higher percentage of White students.
For example, according to the college, Harvard is 24.4% Asian, even though the country as a whole is only 5.9% Asian. Despite this, Asian-American students sued Harvard saying that the process discriminated against them. Which, well, it did. Black students with comparable SAT scores and grades are much more likely to get into Harvard than their Asian counterparts, and yet Black students still represent a much smaller percentage of the Harvard student body than Asian students. This is where the analysis stops for many who oppose Affirmative Action, but to really understand what’s happening, we have to go deeper. Looking at the information we have, we can conclude that one of two things must be true. One: on average, Asian students do get better grades and score higher on the SAT than Black students. Two: highly qualified Black students selectively avoid applying to Harvard in massive numbers. The second option sounds ludicrous, especially considering this would have to generalize to all top schools, but we don’t need to dismiss the second option just because it sounds insane, we can actually positively prove the first option. According to the National Centre for Education Statistics, Asians, on average, score 1223 on the SAT while Black students, on average, score 946. Hispanic students score an average of 990 and White students score an average of 1123, for comparison.
These statistics hold true in other areas, like grades, AP test scores, and National Honors Society Membership. I won’t go into the exact numbers for all of these, but they can easily be found online. Again, from this, we can conclude that one of two things is true. One: Asian people inherently possess qualities that make them do better in school and on the SAT than Black people (I feel gross even writing that). Two: there are external pressures causing this divergence that do not have to do with the inherent qualities of the students, and cannot be controlled by them. Well, that first option is literally just blatant racism, so I feel safe going with the second one.
Summing up our findings from the last two paragraphs, we have conclusively proven that due to factors that they can’t control, Black students are disadvantaged in the college selection process, while Asian students are advantaged. I could go in depth on what those factors are—access to SAT tutors, money, parental education levels, ext—but suffice it to say that every year, hundreds of young, intelligent high school students are denied admission to top schools in favour of students who have been given large advantages in the college selection process due to their race. Huh. That sounds kind of exactly like what was making people upset about affirmative action in the first place, doesn’t it? Affirmative Action is an attempt to correct for the factors that these students can’t control that lead to them getting worse test scores and worse grades, on average.
There are, however, multiple critiques of affirmative action that go beyond the surface level. The first is that racism is a deep, systemic issue in the United States, and affirmative action doesn’t address the root of the problem, it just papers it over. There are other solutions that would be far better than affirmative action. In fact, affirmative action doesn’t even level the playing field. As the stats above show, it just makes the playing field a little less steep. This is true. More money needs to be invested in underfunded schools, the tax systems used to decide the funding for schools need to revamped, and the government needs to take action in the communities that surround those schools as well, because the school itself is not the only—or even the most important—factor in a child’s education. However, all of these solutions require government action. While I agree they should be implemented, universities don’t have the power or the funding to implement them, and affirmative action is pretty much the best they can do. affirmative action isn’t blocking those other things from happening at all, and it doesn’t make sense to stop doing something because it isn’t helping enough or there are better ways of helping that aren’t being used.
The other is that affirmative action isn’t bad in theory, it’s just that it should be based on class, not race. This argument holds that the stats showing Black people do worse on SATs are really just stats showing that people with less money do worse on SATs, and because of racism, Black people tend to be more poor. It’s definitely true that having more money helps you get better grades, go to better high schools, get better SAT scores, and even have more impressive extracurriculars. Money even helps directly in the application at many schools, called need-aware schools, that are more likely to accept wealthy students on purpose in order to make more money. Because of all this, there should be some form of affirmative action based on class. There’s no reason that would need to be at the expense of race-based affirmative action, though. The only reason to replace race-based affirmative action with class-based affirmative action would be if all of the racial differences in high school performance were entirely explained by class differences, which isn’t true.
Unfortunately for us, while most students know their own race, many don’t know their family’s income bracket, so statistics on the SAT by race are based on smaller sample sizes. However, according to CollegeVine, looking at students who did know their income level, even students in the lowest family income bracket, from $0-20,000, scored an average of 970 on the SAT. That’s higher than the average for Black students, which is 946. The average family income for Black households is a little over $40,000, a figure putting the average Black student in an income bracket that averages an SAT score of 1070, 100 points higher than the average for Black students. Furthermore, a 2015 study by U.C Berkley found that race was a stronger predictor of SAT scores than class for applicants. Taken together, there is strong evidence that race, even independent of class, is a very important factor in SAT scores.
Finding data on AP scores, grades, and other important factors in the admissions process broken down by income is even harder, but it stands to reason they would follow the same pattern as SAT scores. Even if they don’t, SAT scores are still—with the exception of this year, due to coronavirus—critical in the college admissions process. Yes, class should be taken into account in affirmative action, but race should as well.
Ultimately, affirmative action is not the best solution, and it could be improved by incorporating class as well, but it’s something. A lot of the opposition to affirmative action stems from the fact that people just don’t take the time to research every important political issue, and if you don’t look into it, affirmative action does seem kind of bad. Hopefully, this clears up some of the confusion around affirmative action, and also serves as a reminder that it’s important to always question narratives. If something seems too simple, well, it usually is.