Race-Based Affirmative Action Programs

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A Critique of Race-Based Affirmative Action Programs in College Admissions

 In recent years, the necessity and morality of affirmative action, especially in the context of college admissions, have been topics of contention in a particularly polarized political arena. The division of opinion is illustrated by a 2015 Gallup poll, which reported that 58% of respondents supported affirmative action for racial minorities9. While proponents of affirmative action programs popularly cite the necessity for rectifying historical discrimination and ensuring universal equality of opportunity for all demographics (Democratic senator Bernie Sanders famously states that “our nation is stronger when we create a more diverse and inclusive environment in higher education.”25), opponents argue that affirmative action programs are both ineffective and immoral, serving to fight discrimination only with continued discrimination. The purpose of this essay is to address not the efficacy, but the morality of such programs and to present a general argument for the claim that race-based affirmative action in the context of college admissions cannot be morally justified.

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In assessing the need for affirmative action, it is important to first set forth a clear definition. The Miriam Webster dictionary defines affirmative action as “an active effort to improve the employment or educational opportunities of members of minority groups and women”2, however for the purpose of this essay, I will also consider the more detailed Oxford Dictionary definition: “the practice or policy of favoring individuals belonging to groups known to have been discriminated against previously; positive discrimination.1”

It is important to note that if we take this definition, we can first establish affirmative action to be a zero-sum game. This becomes most apparent in the commonly-employed hypothetical of two equally qualified applicants applying to university. In this example, if the university “favors individuals belonging to certain groups” and it is also true that universities cannot accept an infinite number of applicants, it follows that when forced to choose one of the two applicants, the minority student would likely be chosen. A 2004 Princeton study illustrates this point, concluding that African American students accepted to universities have an average SAT score of 1202, while Asian Americans have an average score of 1363. While it is true that SAT scores are not the only factor considered in college applications, the study concludes that “the admission bonus given to African-American and Hispanic students is much larger after controlling for SAT score” and “the Asian disadvantage… also strengthens… because Asian students as a group have the highest scores.”5 With all else being equal, by elevating the status of minority applicants, the competitiveness of non-minority applicants is inherently lessened. This is to say that in order to have affirmative action, you must take from one and give to another. If we can establish that this is true, then the question becomes when giving preference is morally justified.

If we consider, for example, two brothers with identical backgrounds and extracurriculars applying to the same university, distinguished only by an SAT score difference of 300 points, ostensibly, the application status of the brother with a higher score would be elevated. Assuming that only one spot remained, this brother would likely be the one admitted. Yet despite the fact that clear preference was shown, most would agree that with all else being equal, admitting the brother with the higher SAT score would not constitute as an injustice. When examining the morality of giving preference to the brother with the higher SAT score, one must first consider the purpose and mission of a university.

According to Princeton University, the mission involves “advancing learning through scholarship, research, and teaching of unsurpassed quality22.” Harvard, Yale, MIT, and Dartmouth similarly affirm their commitment to “educating citizens and citizen-leaders18”, “outstanding research and scholarship19,” “advancing knowledge in areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation20,” and “educating the most promising students.14” Each of these mission statements indicate that in the context of some of our nation’s greatest schools, a primary purpose is to disseminate information among a gifted student body with students who demonstrate ability and promise in academics, the arts or some other field.

In the context of the two brothers, the brother with the higher SAT score more clearly fits the criteria set forth by the university mission statements, displaying promise and ability in the academic arena. If we consider why this is, it is reasonable to assume that the difference in scores can most likely be attributed either to differences in study habits or to differences in natural intelligence; however, it is seemingly impossible to determine which of these factors played a bigger role. As a result, one can conclude that showing preference is morally justifiable if the preferred student naturally possesses some quality which makes him/her more aligned with the university mission or if there is reason to believe that the preferred student has worked harder than the non-preferred student in order to demonstrate their ability. In the context of college admissions, I will consider these criteria for moral justification in order, attempting to set forth a consideration of when they are or are not applicable. 

First, if we establish that affirmative action is ethical if the “preferred student naturally possesses some quality which makes him/her more aligned with the university mission,” it is important to ask the obvious question – does belonging to a certain race make you mean that one is more or less aligned with the university mission? Many would say yes. After all, excellence in academics are only part of the university mission, with Harvard also recognizing the importance of creating a “diverse living environment, where students live with people who are studying different topics, who come from different walks of life.18” A 2016 Supreme Court case, Fisher v. University of Texas, ruled similarly. Justice Anthony Kennedy justified the position that at the University of Texas, “the race conscious admissions program is lawful” by citing “the pursuit of diversity” and arguing that while diversity is “incapable of objective measurement… it makes for greatness.21”

I agree with much of Kennedy’s argument. If the purpose of college is to advance knowledge in several areas and expose students to new ideas, it makes sense to foster a diverse learning environment with students who bring unique perspectives to the table. This is how students learn; if they were never exposed to difference, they would never be forced to evaluate their own set of beliefs and consider the truth of them. However, I think that to use Kennedy’s assertion that “diverse classrooms improve learning” as a defense of race-based admissions is to view diversity through a very narrow lens.

Consider, for example, a student population being equal parts White, Black, East Asian, Indian, Hispanic, and Native American. If the racially diverse campus comprised of an entirely Christian student body, with each student pursuing degrees in English and being active members of the same political party, would this qualify as diverse? More importantly, would the racial diversity in and of itself be one which contributes to an environment of increased learning? Now consider a second campus with a student population comprised entirely of Asian Americans. If the Asian Americans actively practiced different religions, were involved in different activities, had different academic passions, and subscribed to different sets of ideologies, would this still qualify as a homogenous campus? It is an extreme hypothetical, but one which calls into question the success of different forms of diversity—diversity in appearance as compared to diversity in thought—in creating a better learning environment. While both campuses exhibit diversity, the pursuit of racial or pigment diversity is not enough to foster an atmosphere where students are able to learn and formulate new ideas. Instead, universities should pursue a diversity of ideas, perspectives, and backgrounds in order to create a campus culture which is more conducive to student growth.

This is because colleges do not simply strive to achieve diversity for diversity’s sake. Rather, diversity is the standard because it has the potential to further the university mission by allowing students to learn from others with different interests, passions, backgrounds, traditions, and ideas. To implement a preferential policy simply on the basis of appearance would be to implement system which by itself, does not further the university mission. Such a system is also clearly anti-meritocratic, since uncontrollable inheritable traits can outweigh hard work and merit in predicting one’s likelihood for success. Moreover, turning down more qualified students in favor of those of with more desirable physical qualities would be contrary to university missions, as qualified students with promise and potential in their fields would be sacrificed in favor of students on the basis of appearance.

However, this argument is admittedly incomplete. I will cede that even the strongest proponents of affirmative action most likely wouldn’t justify giving preference to minorities simply to achieve diversity of appearance; otherwise, these proponents would likely also argue for quotas on hair color, height, and other physical traits. Rather, these proponents of affirmative action may argue that the aforementioned hypothetical is irrelevant because to grow up as a member of a minority rice is to inherently possess a different perspective. This is to say that the world a black person experiences is entirely different than the world of a white man. Therefore, it is most commonly argued that it is impossible to have a racially diverse university without also having an ideologically diverse university and that similarly, one cannot truly have an ideologically diverse university without having equal representation from all races.

While the extent to which this is true can never be measured or known, it brings up an interesting question: how much does belonging to a certain race in and of itself affect one’s perspective? Is the extent to which race affects perspective the same for everyone?

Perhaps there is no clear-cut answer to this. The first step in considering this question is to control for socio-economic status, an often-overlooked factor, when examining how growing up as a certain race may result in accumulating unique perspectives. Even when controlling for socio-economic status, however, it is still true that perhaps life as a Hispanic man may inherently give one a perspective which could not be understood by a white or black man. Although it is seemingly impossible to prove or disprove with evidence, I will take this to be true for the sake of argument. Even taken to be true, however, race is certainly not the only biological characteristic which may affect one’s world view. If perspective and worldview are derived from past experiences, I think it is likely that the experiences of someone with asthma is vastly different than someone without, the experiences of a youngest sibling is different than those of an only child or oldest sibling, the experiences of a very tall woman is different from the experiences of a short one, and the experiences of a very attractive man is different than those of a more modest-looking man. The extent of the role that any of these traits play in creating a set of values and perspectives likely varies by person. If for any given individual, one of these traits played a particularly substantial role in molding their set of beliefs and ideas, the college essay provides a chance to explore and explain this. However, since race constitutes just one of the hundreds of biological characteristics which make up a person and affect the values they hold, in order to offer special consideration to race, it must hold some special weight over other traits.

One popular position dictates that racial minority status cannot be compared to other biological characteristics because despite all being the product of unique past experiences, the worldview gained from being of a racial minority holds weight over the worldviews gained from having asthma or being an only child because it contains a valuable cultural element. While I agree that an environment with representation from different cultures is valuable, it is also important to delineate the differences and separations between race and culture. Although a student with two Hispanic parents who both grew up in Atlanta but have no cultural expression of their heritage would be racially Hispanic, would that necessarily make him more culturally Hispanic than a student with a Caucasian father and Hispanic mother who speaks Spanish in the home and has a passion for Central American politics? Perhaps this may be an uncommon scenario, but it is one which illustrates a key difference between race and culture. Unlike race, culture requires action; it calls for active participation in traditions and the intake of knowledge. Even on race-blind college application, active participation in culture could be indicated and considered.

Therefore, there must be some other justification as to why race alone – not culture or socio-economic status – is to be considered in college admissions when the hundreds of aforementioned characteristics which may also result in different worldviews are not. Sheryll Cashin, professor at Georgetown University School of Law, offers one potential justification. Cashin explains that the racial minority perspective should be of particular consideration because it stems from being the target of discrimination, arguing that in a country which “fears and demonizes people8” who are of different races, bias and bigotry create an unequal playing field where racial minorities have to work harder to get ahead.

This is not an uncommon opinion. Supreme Justice Sonia Sotomayor states that “cultural biases built into testing… motivated the concept of affirmative action – to try to balance out those effects.8” Author Courtney Martin points to the employment gap to illustrate the prevalence of racism in society, describing her experiences “leading workshops in offices that were 95% – 100 % white.”15 It is important to note that according to these definitions, however, it is not minority status alone which warrants special preference. If it were, then any minority race living in a country with a majority of white people—including Asians and Indians—should also be granted preference. Instead, these arguments are centered around the notion that a systemic or institutional discrimination hinders the success certain racial minorities.

According to the previously established criteria for ethical preference, if one accepts institutional discrimination and systemic bias as truth and that our society is one where non-minority races are granted “privilege,” then affirmative action would be morally justified. This is because in such a society, there would be reason to believe that to achieve equal levels of success, the members of non-privileged groups would work harder than privileged group members in order to overcome the oppressive effect of racism. Giving preference to this student would then be morally justified, as he/she demonstrates more promise and is more in alignment with the university mission and culture of excellence. However, this hinges upon the prevalence of systemic discrimination, and one must first explore the instance and reality of privilege in society.

This privilege should be examined from a modern viewpoint. Conspicuously absent from the aforementioned morally justifiable instances of preference are scenarios involving historical discrimination or privilege. This is a controversial topic, with proponents of affirmative action such as Elizabeth Leung, Minister for Racial Justice at the United Church stating that “affirmative action seeks to redress the historical injuries of racism.14” However, when examining prejudice and discrimination throughout American history, the reality is that several groups which once faced discrimination now thrive. An Indiana University Press journal article reports that in the mid 1900’s, “over 90 percent of [job] openings were in white-collar categories … despite the extreme shortage of workers in these categories, more than 20 percent of the orders were specifically closed to Jews29.” A study of over 5500 job applicants found that during this time, “Jewish job-seekers had less than half as much opportunity to be placed by employment agencies as non-Jewish applicants29.” Just 10 years earlier, Roosevelt signed into law an executive order which would imprison almost 120,000 Japanese Americans “with the intention of preventing espionage.11” Does this mean that granting Japanese Americans or Jews preferential treatment in today’s college application process is morally justifiable? Considering that the median income for US-born Japanese Americans is currently $80,00012 (35% higher than the average income) and that almost 50% of Jewish household incomes are greater than $100,00016, one can hardly make the argument that Japanese Americans or American Jews face serious societal discrimination. Even if it is true that historical discrimination may have lasting implications and that it “continues to mutate in our social practices,” it seems that this is certainly not assured. Therefore, it is more sensible to examine discrimination only in the context of current injustice. I will do this in the context of black Americans, as in my experience, this is the racial group most popularly cited as the target of societal oppression.

Even if there does exist societal discrimination, it is appropriate to first pose the question—to what extent does societal discrimination have to exist in order to justify affirmative action? After all, if race-based affirmative action programs are implemented, even black people who do not face discrimination in their lives will be granted preference, consequently hurting the admission chances of non-minority applicants given a finite amount of spots. Moreover, if it has already been established that granting preference soley based on appearance (if this appearance is not systemically discriminated against) is unjust and goes against the American ideal of meritocracy, then each instance of the aforementioned scenario is an instance where preference was unfairly granted. Therefore, it is important not only that there is reason to believe that racism negatively affects a very large percentage of black Americans, but that we can conclude this with little uncertainty.

There is no perfect way to go about doing this, however, as it is impossible to either conclusively prove or conclusively disprove the idea that racism still has an overwhelming effect on the black population. Furthermore, while there irrefutably have been horrible incidents of racism in America in recent years—look no further than the Charleston shooting of 2015.  Additionally, literature and social media abound with anecdotes of racism and bigotry.  But, one must look not at just at personal experiences, but rather look at available population statistics and larger trends. I will go through some of the most commonly referenced population trends cited as evidence of oppression and attempt to gauge the statistical weight of each.

Perhaps the most commonly reference population statistic referenced by proponents of affirmative action is the education and employment rate disparity. According to the United States Census Bureau, there exists a significant disparity between white and black Americans in each arena. A 2015 population survey indicated that only 53% of black Americans aged 25 and older had a college degree compared to 59% of white Americans24 and in 2016, the average Black unemployment rate was 6.1% compared to 3.2% unemployment rate for white Americans6. These numbers are compelling, but they cannot automatically be attributed to racism. There exists an important distinction between discrepancy and discrimination— although discrimination often leads to discrepancy, this does not mean that discrepancy is always a product of discrimination. For example, there is a huge discrepancy in professional sports between Jews and non-Jews. This year, less than 1% of NBA players identified as Jewish, yet this discrepancy can’t be explained by discrimination, but rather by different career choices and trends among the Jewish population compared to the non-Jewish population13.

Similarly, even if we cannot and should not discount racism as a possibility accounting for the education and employment gap between black and white Americans, it is important to consider other factors. Among these factors include the significant differences in high school dropout rates (4.7% for white compared to 5.7% for blacks17), teen pregnancy rates (1.9% for white Americans compared to 3.9% of black Americans), and college dropout rates (5.2% for white Americans compared to 6.2% for black Americans).

In a Washington Post article, journalist Valerie Strauss references “police harassment” as one reason “we need Affirmative Action for African Americans in College Decisions.27” Joseph Cesario, professor at Michigan State University agrees, citing that “Black Americans are 13% of the population, but make up over 30 percent of people fatally shot by police” as evidence to support “clear evidence of… racial bias.3” However, as Harvard economics professor Roland Fryer points out, factors such as “whether or not the suspect was armed, weapon type, demographics, the city in which the shooting took place, whether there were signs of mental illness, the threat level to officers, and whether the officer was wearing a body camera,” should also be considered. In fact, when Fryer considers these factors, his evidence suggests that “there is no bias in police shootings.” A recent study by Washington State University corroborates his claim, concluding that “even with white officers who do have racial biases, officers are three times less likely to shoot unarmed black suspects than unarmed white suspects”. This isn’t to say that this study provides conclusive evidence that racism doesn’t exist or that there aren’t police shootings influenced by racism. In fact, a Washington University study draws the opposite conclusion, finding that “blacks are more likely to have been unarmed when killed by police than non-blacks7”. This is merely to say that in this case, we do not have sufficient evidence of institutional racism.

Similarly, other commonly cited evidence for societal discrimination and bigotry fail to provide compelling evidence of racism when relevant factors are considered. While black Americans are overwhelmingly overrepresented in prisons, crime rates are drastically higher among black Americans than other races28. While the average income for black families is lower than white families, much of this gap is due to differences in education and single motherhood rates (24% for white Americans compared to 66% of black Americans4). Given that there exists such uncertainty around the prevalence and extent of racism, there is little evidence to suggest that racism is a societal issue which affects most black Americans. As such, it is difficult to defend the implementation of affirmative action policies.

The purpose of this essay has been to outline a critique of race-based affirmative action programs in college admissions. Since members of a certain race cannot be granted preference without disfavoring students of other races, then such preference is only justified in specific circumstances. One such case involves the preferred student’s race inherently making them more compatible with the university mission statement. Although diversity is included as part of the university purpose, there exists more to diversity than skin color. Far more important to creating a community of dialogue and learning is diversity of thought, ideology, and culture (separate from race). Moreover, even if we accept race to play a role in shaping perspective, then it is one of several biological traits which may help to shape individual worldviews, and the extent to which it plays a role in determining perspective varies. Therefore, it should hold no special weight over other biological factors. Preference can also be justified when there is reason to believe that the preferred student has worked harder to demonstrate his/her ability. In the case of race, this means providing sufficient evidence to indicate widespread discrimination which hampers the opportunity of minority Americans. Although it is impossible to make a definitive conclusion as to the prevalence of racism, it is clear that cultural or situational factors account for much of the recent societal discrepancies between black Americans and Americans of other races. Given the lack of sound statistical support for the popular claim of widespread discrimination, race-based affirmative action programs in college admissions cannot be morally justified at this time.


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  2. “Affirmative Action.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster
  3. Cesario, Joseph. “A New Look at Racial Disparities in Police Use of Deadly Force.” The Conversation, The Conversation, 19 Sept. 2018
  4. “Children in Single-Parent Families by Race.” Kids Count Data Center, Annie E. Casey Foundation.
  5. Chung, et al. “Admission Preferences for Minority Students, Athletes, and Legacies at Elite Universities.” Princeton University, 2004.
  6. “E-16. Unemployment Rates by Age, Sex, Race, and Hispanic or Latino Ethnicity.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4 Jan. 2019
  7. Everding, Gerry. “Police Kill Unarmed Blacks More Often, Especially When They Are Women, Study Finds | The Source | Washington University in St. Louis.” The Source, Washington University in St. Louis, 14 Feb. 2018
  8. Felix, Antonia. Sonia Sotomayor: the True American Dream. Berkley Books, 2011.
  9. Gallup, Inc. “Higher Support for Gender Affirmative Action Than Race.” Gallup.com, 26 Aug. 2015, news.gallup.com/poll/184772/higher-support-gender-affirmative-action-race.aspx.
  10. Jackman, Tom. “This Study Found Race Matters in Police Shootings, but the Results May Surprise You.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 27 Apr. 2016
  11. “Japanese Internment Camps.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 29 Oct. 2009.
  12. “Japanese | Data on Asian Americans.” Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project, Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project, 8 Sept. 2017
  13. “Jews in Sports.” Suleyman, Jewish Virtual Library, www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jewish-nba-players-statistics.
  14. Leung, Elizabeth. “Why We Still Need Affirmative Action.” United Church of Christ, 2018.
  15. Martin, Courtney. “Why Are White People So Bad At Talking About Race? – BRIGHT Magazine.” BRIGHT Magazine, BRIGHT Magazine, 7 Sept. 2018
  16. Masci, David. “How Income Varies among U.S. Religious Groups.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 11 Oct. 2016
  17. McFarland, Joel, et al. “Trends in High School Dropout and Completion Rates in the United States: 2014.” National Center for Education Statistics, US Department of Education, 2014.
  18. “Mission and Vision.” Harvard University, 2019.
  19. “Mission Statement.” Dartmouth University, 2019.
  20. “Mission.” Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2019.
  21. Peralta, Eyder. “Supreme Court Upholds University Of Texas’ Affirmative Action Program.” National Public Radio, NPR, 23 June 2016
  22. “Princeton Strategic Plan Framework.” Princeton University, 2016.
  23. “Racial and Ethnic Disparities Persist in Teen Pregnancy Rates.” The Pew Charitable Trusts, PEW Research Center, 2015
  24. Ryan, Camille, and Kurt Bauman. “Educational Attainment in the United States: 2015.” Population Characteristics, Current Population Reports, Mar. 2016.
  25. “Sanders Statement on Supreme Court Affirmative Action Case.” Bernie Sanders, berniesanders.com
  26. “Status Dropout Rates – The Condition of Education.” National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Home Page, a Part of the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, May 2018
  27. Strauss, Valerie. “Why We Still Need Affirmative Action for African Americans in College Admissions.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 3 July 2014
  28. “Violent Crime : Selected Findings.” Bureau of Justice Statistics, US Department of Justice, 1994.
  29. Waldman, Lois. Employment Discrimination against Jews in the United States. Jewish Social Studies, Employment Discrimination against Jews in the United States.
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Race-Based Affirmative Action Programs. (2020, Mar 23). Retrieved October 6, 2022 , from

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