Wheel Debates: In Favor of Affirmative Action

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Fisher v. University of Texas is a case currently before the Supreme Court. The decision is still pending but expected soon. A ruling in favor of Abigail Fisher could end affirmative action policies in admissions at public universities, with potential implications for admission at private universities as well. This debate imagines that the Court rules in favor of Fisher, with the Opposed arguing against the decision, and the Pro arguing in support of the decision. 

One such case of this attempt toward re-interpretation is a lawsuit currently being handled by the Supreme Court: Fisher v. University of Texas. Traditional views on race are being critically re-examined through the lens of college admissions and affirmative action. A ruling in favor of Fisher would include a reversal of current affirmative-action policies that use race as a factor in college admissions. With the most conservative Supreme Court bench in years, this is a high possibility. This would have profound implications for universities across the nation, including Emory.

A court ruling in favor of Abigail Fisher provides us with an opportunity to challenge our focus on race as the primary mechanism for achieving diversity. I argue that examining this issue mainly through socioeconomic class is much more relevant for three reasons: class is where inequalities lie, a class-based affirmative action system works and a race-based affirmative action system is ineffective at accomplishing diversity.

The original goal of affirmative action was to pursue diversity and equalize potential students based on opportunity. Currently, class accounts for much of the inequality that occurs within primary and secondary education. For example, it is hard to imagine that a student from an inner-city school who lives in the projects has the same access to resources as a more affluent student. When it comes to college admissions, this disparity is especially apparent. Previously, race-based affirmative action was implemented to address inequalities — however, it’s become outdated. Research by William Bowen and Derek Bok, former presidents of Princeton University and Harvard University, respectively, found that 86 percent of targeted minorities in highly-selective schools are from the middle or upper class. Not only does the current system inadequately address inequality, but it also does not create the diversity crucial for a representative student body.

In order to address this disparity, it is instrumental that an updated system is implemented. Some schools have already utilized a more class-oriented process of affirmative action. Multiple large public schools have taken such measures — this includes dropping legacy preferences, increasing financial aid budgets, fostering stronger relationships with low-income schools and automatically admitting the top 10 percent of all high schools. Ironically, studies by the University of Colorado at Boulder show that public schools preserved or even exceeded racial diversity when race wasn’t the focus.

A relevant argument to address against a class-based affirmative action is the “do both” idea: incorporating both race and class. This is very similar to the status quo. While adding them together might seem like double the benefit, this is not the case. The Century Foundation found that when adding both factors together, race significantly dwarfs the focus on class. This is because it is more cost-effective for the university to utilize race over class. Stephen Carter of The New York Times calls it “racial justice on the cheap.”

Finally, some might argue about the ineffectiveness of affirmative action as a whole, class- or race-based. These arguments are mostly based in the quest for a student body determined by their merit. While in an ideal world this could work, it ignores the huge range of experiences children have growing up and the inadequacy of standard measures of merit. A student with considerably less resources but average test scores is still a valuable addition as a voice on campus. Richard Kahlenburg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, also said, “Class is not meant to challenge merit but be a better approximation of it.”

As Emory students, we strive to achieve the best possible policy that benefits the student body. Nowhere is this more apparent than our quest to achieve diversity — with recent Emory events concerning race, it is clear the campus benefits from a broad variety of perspectives. Benefits could also be realized in attracting more minority professors, creating a diverse network of alumni and overall incorporating different viewpoints that could be essential in improving Emory. In the last Supreme Court ruling in 2003, affirmative action was upheld for the pure reason of reaching that goal. However, a race-based affirmative action is obsolete; it requires innovation that brings it forward to the current obstacles that face potential college students. Even though the system will never be perfect, it can be changed in a way that ultimately allows us to reach our goal of building a better university.

For the opposing opinion, click here

Cartoon by Katrina Worsham

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