As Americans, we ought to pride ourselves on our remarkable diversity, particularly given the complicated history of race relations in this country. Even after centuries of inequality, discrimination, and racial issues that persist to this day, most citizens can agree that America should represent the antithesis of these vices. Paradoxically, many controversies relating to racial equality in the United States revolve around how equality ought to be achieved rather than whether it should be achieved — thankfully, the consensus on the latter is resounding across the political spectrum. Among the most contentious of these debates is the discussion surrounding affirmative action, which seeks to improve minority representation in institutions such as universities. Given its treatment of the Asian American community and inability to address racial disparities in academic and vocational achievement, affirmative action is a highly ineffective strategy that in many respects perpetuates racism.
Perhaps the most egregious victim of affirmative action in the twenty-first century has been the Asian American community. In 2005, Princeton sociologists Thomas Espenshade and Chang Y. Chung found that Asian Americans had to score 280 points higher on their SAT exams (on the 1600-point scale) than their Black peers to achieve parity in the admissions process, as well as 50 points higher than White applicants. A similar study conducted by Espenshade in 2009 found that an Asian American needed to score an exceptionally high 1550 on the SAT to have the same chance of admission at an elite university as a Black American who scored 1100. Moreover, White Americans were three times and Black Americans a whopping fifteen times as likely to be accepted at private U.S. colleges than Asian Americans. These distortions amount to Asian American students being assessed in an academic category entirely different from that of their peers. In addition, admission officers have a disturbing tendency to rate Asian American applicants lower than others in character evaluations. The harsh penalties given to Asian Americans in the admissions process despite their experiences with discrimination, prejudice, and racism illustrate the failure of affirmative action to appropriately recognize the history of bias against particular racial and ethnic groups.
Many proponents of affirmative action argue that disparities in the treatment of different races are necessary to level the playing field between these groups and compensate for inequality. Unfortunately, affirmative action even fails to achieve this goal. A review of American law schools by Richard Sander, a professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles, found a significant gap in the academic performance of Black and White students upon their enrollment. While many assume that a new academic environment will allow for students given advantages in the admissions process based on their race to “catch up” to their White and Asian peers, Black students’ GPAs did not improve between the time of their enrollment and completion of their third year of law school. This trend is not the result of students’ race or educational background, but rather their academic credentials. Sander found that the correlation between prior academic performance (undergraduate GPA and LSAT scores) and first-year law school grades is noticeably stronger than that between smoking and life expectancy or the incomes of adult brothers. As a result of this lack of improvement, Black students have unfortunately faced higher dropout rates and a first-time bar exam fail rate that is four times higher than their White counterparts. The evidence is clear: many students advantaged by affirmative action are not advantaged by the academic environment in which they are placed. As opposed to meaningful calls to improve inequalities in public education that influence racial disparities, affirmative action papers over these cracks, pairing students with universities where they may struggle to distinguish themselves rather than preparing them for success from the beginning of their primary education.
Affirmative action not only fails to combat the racial inequalities it identifies given its beneficiaries are hardly aided by it; in many respects, it perpetuates and exacerbates racism, most notoriously through its treatment of Asian American students. Instead of rooting out discrimination and inequality as its advocates hope, affirmative action has ignored and reinforced such evils. A continuing adherence to racial labels, particularly overgeneralizing and damaging ones, can never guide us to the American Dream free of prejudice and racism that we all envision. As Chief Justice John Roberts famously said, “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” Abandoning affirmative action in search of a more meaningful alternative will put our country on track to a more just, inclusive, and prosperous future.