Race-Based Affirmative Action is Still Progressive

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

In the article “Affirmative Action: A Cruel Policy Masquerading as Progressivism” Navid Kiassat claims that race-based affirmative action is, by implication, always bad. By suggesting that colleges should forget about racial affirmative action and instead focus on class-based affirmative action, Kiassat not only ignores the effects of race, but also forgets the importance of a racially diverse student body.

At selective elite institutions, admission offices look for diversity and fit when it comes to deciding which students get accepted, not just race and academics. When there are a plethora of qualified applicants, colleges have the luxury of accepting a diverse class. Diversity doesn’t just constitute racial makeup, but also geographic diversity, artistic and athletic talent, religious diversity, and even socioeconomic diversity. There are just so many factors that play into the application process that one would be wrong to claim that any applicant was accepted just because of their skin color.

Kiassat claims that “race is a deciding factor in elite college admissions.” But the only study he uses to support this claim fails to take into consideration other admissions variables like wealth and generational status. Most blacks applying to elite universities aren’t as wealthy as their average Asian and white peers. The SAT score penalties and bonuses that show up in Kiassat’s study could be a result of the correlation between wealth and SAT scores. Let’s remember that the median household income for Asian Americans is more than twice that of African Americans. For all we know, colleges are already taking Kiassat’s advice and using wealth as a major factor in admissions. This advantage might just show up in studies as an advantage that goes to underrepresented minority (URM) groups.

Kiassat also argues that only the privileged members of racial minorities end up at elite colleges because of race based affirmative action, but that’s not exactly true. I suspect that if colleges remove race from the admissions equation, more low-income students from overrepresented ethnic groups and fewer low-income URM students will be accepted. Colleges, on either side of the argument, likely already take socio-economic diversity into account when they are selecting their incoming classes.

There simply is no link between colorblind policies and greater socioeconomic diversity because accepting more students of color does not trade off with accepting low-income students. Admissions offices can pursue both policies at the same time. We should argue for greater class-based affirmative action alongside race based affirmative action instead of adopting colorblind admissions policies.

Race-based affirmative action not only diversifies student bodies but also helps underrepresented minority groups as a whole. Helping socioeconomically privileged individuals who are members of underrepresented minority groups can help the less privileged of the same group by building social capital and race-based social networks that cross class lines in a de-facto racially segregated society. It’s wrong to think that low-income people can climb-up the socioeconomic ladder just through the “example and leadership” of more privileged people. Networking and academic success are the things that allow for upward mobility and better access to resources. A socioeconomically and racially diverse student body provides low-income URM students with the social networks they may need for upward socioeconomic mobility.

Finally, Kiassat perpetuates the notion that wealth erases all structural, social, political, and economic obstacles for affluent students of color. This idea is incorrect. We can’t forget that structural and individual racism exist. 300+ studies prove phenomena like stereotype threat are real and that they affect the academic performance of URM students and women. Even wealthy students of color tend to underperform compared to their white and Asian peers of the same socioeconomic group. Racial disadvantages absolutely exist regardless of wealth As a consequence, race should be considered in admissions decisions.

It’s disappointing that Kiassat would choose to attack affirmative action for URM students instead of arguing against the advantages given to affluent students from all groups. The 2004 Princeton Study cited by Kiassat explains that race-based affirmative action was in decline at the time the study was made. It also extensively analyzes other groups of students who receive comparable boosts in admissions (legacies, athletes, etc.). If Kiassat were consistent, he would have mentioned these beneficiaries as well.

Kiassat’s article misses the point. This debate doesn’t need to be about about whether to consider race or wealth in admissions. The clear answer is to take both factors into account.

Admissions needs to be a holistic process. Because in the end, race matters.

Featured image courtesy of the AP/Paul Sakuma.


  1. I find it a bit disconcerting that you use you phrase “overrepresented ethnic groups”. If affirmative action is supposed to be a way to right the wrongs of the past, and help minority groups reach greater heights in society, why is affirmative action more penalizing towards Asians than whites? Asians have certainly faced their fare share of societal discrimination, whether it was immigration restrictions in the 1890s all the way the 1960s or vilification and internment in the 1940s. Why should it be more “penalizing” to be an Asian student applying to college than a white student? Diversity is certainly a noble goal, and worth pursuing. But there are certainly other ways to boost college diversity and increase the number of URMs on college campuses outside of affirmative action. Why should some minorities be helped at the expense of other minorities?

    • So, accepting more African American and Latinx students means accepting less Asian Americans? Can a class-based only affirmative action be better for the wealthier ethnic groups in this country? When the HS class of 2016 is approximately 12% Asian, couldn’t you say that a 17% Asian student body counts as a literal overrepresentation? Couldn’t you say that the penalty imposed on Asian Americans may come from class-based affirmative action instead of race-based affirmative action? Why do you ask the question: “why is affirmative action more penalizing towards Asians than whites?” and then imply that the problem is helping underrepresented minorities? ¯_(ツ)_/¯

      • You assume that statistical fluctuations or statistical racial differences must never ever exist anywhere, which is plainly false. “Overrepresentation”, true, but “overrepresentation” does not equal “problem to be corrected”. We have to look closer to know if that reflects discrimination in college admissions or not. What Siddharth was pointing out is that your conceptualization is wrong. You conceptualized it in a wrong way, which is shown by your word choice of “overrepresented”, because “overrepresentation” itself is not relevant to the issue and should not be factored in like it is.

        I support the idea of an “uncontrollable-disadvantage-based” affirmative action, such as class, race, ethnicity, gender, origin, high school/educational opportunities, etc., whereever applicable. Sure, that would not benefit “a wealthier ethnic group in this country”, but that’s not what an egalitarian affirmative action is supposed to do.

        And to argue in an other direction, admissions natually favors wealthier and luckier groups who have more better quality opportunities, amenities, and life conditions avilable. Would you therefore, as a member of such a group, support no affirmative actions at all? Yeah sure you support some affirmative action, as you have shown by writing this op-ed.

        See, the issue is not merely about “underrepresented groups being underrepresented”. People are not numbers. It’s about people not being able to have the same chance or opportunities because of birth lottery; about people who would have done just as excellently if only they had such luck and opportunities, and people who would have fallen into a nameless corner of the world early on if only their opporunities and things they just were given the luck for were to be taken away from them.

        PS. There’s nothing that morally justifies you having what you have based on your birth, in my opinion, because you did nothing for your own birth and so far as we know there is no scientifically known way to decide birth (time, era, location, class, race, ethnicity, family, neighborhood, parents, sex, (dis)abilities, birth/body configurations, etc.) at all. This is the reason why I think affirmative action of some sort is morally imperative, regardless of my actual position in the world.

  2. “Admissions offices can pursue both policies at the same time.”

    Exactly! I think in large part this issue comes down to the “right” answer being “both, and” rather than “either, or”, as I remember being told at orientation would be the case with the vast majority of things we would one day discuss at Swarthmore. Thank you for making that so clear here. 🙂

  3. Affirmative action should be banned period, so should disparate impact, because you can’t define race and use it as an equality metric, should we admit more white folks to prison and let blacks/hispanics out to even things out?

    I am in favor of perhaps not counting or putting less weight towards sat/act which may be used be higher-wealthy families.

    Diversity is great for college, but can fail at goals, a muslim woman with a veil who is quiet may or may not contribute much to the college rather than sitting a lecture, the same can be said for jews,asians,or whoever who just do the lecture and not have much debate and talk in a math or science class as opposed to asking questions and application of what they are(what field uses this math, or tell me more).

    Let’s take the term “hispanic”, according to government policies, “hispanic” can mean the following, your a white european whos parents are from spain, or argentina, you come from a wealthy white cuban family, you identify as black but are afro-cuban or puerto rican. If your brazilian its complicated, are you latino,latina, hispanic/latino doesn’t have to mean mexican, and as far as culture is concerned what if your a americanized black cuban vs. a white cuban who knows spanish and practices cuban culture?

    The term “white” can mean more than just the typical american whites, it can mean a recent immigrate from former soviet block, someone who’s jewish, a dark skinned arab from arabia or north africa. Of course let’s say your parents are from a latin american country and you happen to be in one of those categories, well your “hispanic”.

    What about blacks, truth to be told there can be tension and looking down from native african americans vs. african migrants. Many african americans have white blood in them. So your 1/2 black but have dark skin your black, but if 1/4 black or 1/2 black and look white, what happens? If your from the dominican republic are you black, chances are most of your dna is black. Is it a matter of skin color,what about rachel dozeal?

    Many asians who defend affirmative action claim that there is more “holistic” criteria, nonsense, many asians may do more than test scores such as extracurricular activities and music which of course requires more money which then is used to further justify affirmative action. If a surgeon is operating you, I don’t give a hoot if most of them are white,asian, and less qualified hispanic/blacks exist, and carson might agree.

    The bottom line is if a person who is black,latino, or “qualifies as black/latino”, got lower test scores, he/she would be admitted solely because of race. In brazil a person who is partially black had to sue and had doctors measure skin color only to determine different sections were different.

    Many filipinos aren’t of spanish descent, but they have spanish surnames, however they do exist in small 3% or so but sufficient numbers, if your 1/8th hispanic, your qualify, that is your great-parent is a white european person from spain.

    We should end this charade,now. Should historically black colleges be scrutinized, what do african migrants think. Some folks think because of legacy of discrimination,we should have aa, we should not have aa, other ways such as income,and paying less attention to sat/act which benefits wealthy tutors.

    Asians are victims of colonialism, immigration discrimination, quotas, used as cheap labor in european colonies,etc. Korea which is somewhat racist, was as poor as africa. Asian indians were used as cheap labor also. Also blacks, well it turns about many “hispanics” are actually black, puerto ricans,cubans, dominicans are largely descendants of african slaves, its just that some married whites. However, I don’t see many of them claiming aa and discrimination status as much as african americans.

    Society doesn’t judge by race, we don’t like jimi hendrix’s music because hes black, or have carson as a surgeon because he’s black,or steve jobs because hes white. Furthermore,groups often tend to somewhat self-identify with similar folks, koreans usually hang out with koreans, blacks may largely hang out with blacks though sometimes with whites, hispanics can go either way (though the term is varied), furthermore other factors are at play, blacks and whites may speak english whereas a mexican immigrant may not have great mastery of the language. Asian business may answer the phone in korean and have signs in korean.
    Many businesses may only have spanish rather than english.

    Ironically, the more intermarriage and diversity we have the less justification for AA will happen,furthermore the term minority is misleading as asian indians and chinese alone make up 1/3 of the world population, and whites are headed for “minority status”, of course if your father is from spain, you can still get the AA privilege.

    If we celebrate and appreciate America as a tolerant,diverse,country we cannot move forward with AA especially on terms with race.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

The Phoenix

Discover more from The Phoenix

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading