April 26, 2017

KRAVITZ’S KORNER | The Casual Stereotyping of Affirmative Action

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Courtesy of NBC News

One of the most frequently cited arguments in favor of affirmative action practices at universities is that they help those with societal disadvantages succeed. Yet, by propagating stereotypes about the relative achievement of certain classes of individuals, affirmative action policies have perpetuated discrimination on the basis of race.

Affirmative action assumes that groups such as African Americans and Hispanic Americans are uniformly underprivileged and that all other groups are uniformly privileged. In order to correct for these differences in background, affirmative action makes it easier for African Americans and Hispanic Americans to gain admission and, since college admission is a zero sum game, more difficult for all other groups to gain admission.

A big problem with this system is that not all African Americans and Hispanic Americans are poor and underserved, and not all other groups—such as Asian American and white American—are privileged. America is a diverse society. There are aggregate statistics that reveal these patterns of success, but assuming that all individuals who identify as a certain background fall into these achievement groups is incorrect.

Take, as an example, the Asian American population. According to research conducted by Princeton University professor Thomas Espenshade, Asian American applicants have to score, on average, 140 points higher on the SAT than white applicants (and even higher than Hispanic and African American applicants) when all other factors are controlled in order to stand an equal chance of being admitted to selective universities. It is obvious that college admissions staff are not affording preferential treatment to this minority. However, not all Asian Americans come from privileged backgrounds. The term “Asian Americans” encompasses heterogeneous groups of people from East Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia. One such group of Asian Americans is the Hmong group, among whom a staggering 28 percent live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Moreover, about 38 percent of Hmong living in America have not completed high school. The race checkbox on college applicants doesn’t allow applicants to specify any Asian American subgroup, so college admissions personnel don’t make any distinction between different types of Asian Americans. As a result, affirmative action policies that hurt Asian Americans will also end up harming people who come from poor backgrounds, such as Hmong Americans.

It’s not just some Asian Americans who suffer from affirmative action. Consider the state of Kentucky, where 17 percent of white residents live in poverty—roughly twice the national average. White Kentuckians don’t receive any of the benefits of college admissions practices aimed at helping underperforming groups, even though this group has poor access to good K-12 schools, college preparatory services, etc. This is in stark contrast to Hispanic Americans in Virginia, wherein 15 percent of Hispanics live below the poverty line. Hispanic residents of Virginia have comparable financial backgrounds to white Kentucky residents, but only the Hispanic applicants in Virginia will be benefited by affirmative action.

The lesson from affirmative action is that not all people fall neatly into categories. More African Americans and Hispanics come from poor backgrounds than Asian American and white Americans, but this is merely a statistic, not a blanket statement about all people who identify as members of these groups. If colleges genuinely want to assist disadvantaged groups, they should custom tailor their admissions practices to benefit all socio-economically deprived groups—regardless of racial background. On the other hand, if universities continue with discriminatory admissions practices based on race, they will end up perpetuating the kind of racial stereotyping which has no place in our society.