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.