Affirmative action has played a key role in increasing the enrollment of underrepresented minorities at universities ever since the 1960s. Without access to this tool, minority enrollment has been difficult to maintain. Look at our own university: Ever since affirmative action was banned in 2006, Black enrollment has steadily dropped from 7.1 percent in 2005 to 4.1 percent in 2015.
Supporters of this policy often advocate for it through one of three avenues. Some argue people of color have suffered centuries of discrimination and admittance to places of higher learning acts as a form of reparations. Others believe that normatively, a university should reflect the demographics of the people it is meant to serve (e.g. the state of Michigan is 14.2 percent Black and thus so should be the state’s flagship university). The last common argument is that diversity has intrinsic value and we should always strive to create more diverse spaces. Unfortunately, these arguments aren’t compelling to many groups (primarily whites, Asians and Indians) who feel as though affirmative action disadvantages them. Proposal 2, the initiative banning affirmative action at the University, was passed by a huge 16-point margin. It’s clear that the rhetoric promoting affirmative action hasn’t been effective.
But there’s a way of discussing affirmative action that is rarely explored that looks more specifically at its benefits. Rather than viewing diversity as a hazy ideal, we can instead look at how it benefits students of all races. The most obvious benefit of diversity is that it exposes students to a variety of viewpoints. This creates more worldly, thoughtful students who can internalize and learn from these myriad perspectives.
That being said, it’s easy to conceptualize how this benefits students in humanities, but what about students earning STEM degrees? Different cultures have different ways of examining the same problem. As a child, my dad often told me the story of man’s greatest invention. One intrepid inventor created an adhesive spray that created a reusable sticky surface, but couldn’t find an application for it. This inventor was giving a lecture on his creation and one of his coworkers, Arthur Fry, who sang in choir, was in attendance. Fry was often frustrated that his sheet music wouldn’t stick to his music stand and quickly realized that the spray solved the problem. Eventually, they combined these two ideas and invented sticky notes.
While there is no mention of race in this story, it does illustrate the value of cross-cultural interaction. Every student comes from a different background, bringing different experiences and insights to the classroom. However, to create these interactions in the first place, we need a diverse student body.
Diversity also has value beyond these intergroup discoveries. Working in diverse groups also makes you smarter. Sheen S. Levine, a professor at the University of Texas, Dallas, recently discovered that people in racially heterogeneous groups are better able to predict bubbles in the stock market than teams composed of just white or just Black people. The reasoning goes that when you work in a group of people who don’t look like you, you don’t automatically trust them and default to their judgment. This creates more intellectual friction and helps people arrive at the correct answer.
There are plenty of people who find ethical arguments supporting affirmative action compelling — people who believe it morally correct to give minorities a leg up in college admissions due to our nation’s legacy of systematic discrimination. Unfortunately, these people are not a majority. Many Americans believe this argument is either inappropriate or ineffective. Supporters of affirmative action can bolster their argument now by emphasizing the empirical benefits of affirmative action; benefits that will extend toward people of all races.
While civil rights groups have often discussed mass incarceration as a human rights violation, we’ve only begun to see bipartisan progress in reducing our prison population after lobbyists began framing it in terms of monetary costs. If you go to the American Civil Liberties Union’s webpage on mass incarceration, the majority of the points listed are about the fiscal toll rather than the deep racial disparities this policy has exacerbated. There’s an important lesson here: Sometimes to create progress, we need to tailor our rhetoric and focus on making our arguments palatable.
This isn’t to downplay the importance of educating Americans about the effects of our country’s history of racism, but this cultural and moral change takes time, and creating legislative change can take even longer. By recognizing this and fighting pragmatically within our current system while working hard to transform the moral fiber of our country, we can create lasting change in the social justice arena.
Roland Davidson can be reached at email@example.com.