There’s no denying that diversity benefits college campuses and society as a whole. In his book “The Difference,” University Prof. Scott E. Page shows that diversity results in a society that is better at problem solving and is more productive. A diverse community allows us to celebrate what makes us unique while simultaneously respecting our differences.
A plethora of research also shows that when minority students are given the necessary tools, they perform as well, if not better, than their white counterparts. In a recent book titled “The Shape of the River,” William Bowen and Derek Bok found that African-American college graduates achieve above average civil participation rates and marriage rates. It follows that performance isn’t a derivative of identity but rather a product of opportunity. So why do I find the affirmative action concept problematic?
Hint: It’s not because I am a conservative (I am not).
Many make the mistake of equating affirmative action with diversity and conclude that to be against affirmative action means being against diversity. But affirmative action is only a means of achieving the goal of diversity, and — as is often the case in the policymaking process — it is our dependence on this method, not its goal, that I contest. In essence, while affirmative action may be necessary in the short run, we should seek to make it unnecessary in the long run.
Consider some common — and often factually fallacious — criticisms of affirmative action. We have all heard the argument that affirmative action constitutes reverse discrimination. Critics who argue this reduce affirmative action to a system of quotas, which allows minority candidates to enter into programs at the expense of their white counterparts. On the flip side, some, including Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, have argued that affirmative action causes minority students to develop inferiority complexes. While one can question the validity of these arguments, as I often do, the result is undeniable — affirmative action remains a divisive and contentious topic.
And, as University students, we find ourselves at the heart of the storm. Repeatedly, liberals have had to defend affirmative action policies. Surely there’s a better long-term means to promote diversity on college campuses without facing continuous charges of sponsoring reverse discrimination.
An alternative solution exists. But it’s not simple, nor is it cheap. It entails tackling the root problem which affirmative action seeks to remedy: the fact that minority students are often disadvantaged compared to their white counterparts. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s State Health Facts, approximately one-third of all African Americans live below the poverty line, compared to only approximately 12 percent of whites. The imprisonment rate among young African-Americans who drop out of high school is almost 23 percent, according to a new report released by a national coalition sponsored by the Alternative Schools Network. In short, minority students find themselves coping with no after-school programs, rampant crime, overpopulated schools lacking in supplies and unstable family nucleuses. It’s not easy to prioritize getting into college in such an environment.
Sadly, many policymakers try to reap support in minority communities by flashing their affirmative action credentials. Thereafter, they never make the effort to solve the problems necessitating affirmative action programs in the first place. This amounts to indirectly supporting systematic inequality.
We should stop turning a blind eye to the racially driven inequality that exists throughout the United States, only then to attempt to remedy the situation through the college admissions process. If we wish to promote diversity on college campuses the right way, we should actively support anti-crime policies in troubled neighborhoods, restructuring inner-city schools and expanding after-school and recreational programs. This would allow minority students to compete on a leveled academic playing field, and affirmative action would become increasingly obsolete.
Such reforms won’t be easy. They require time, solidarity and, even worse, some charity on the part of those fortunate enough to reside in privileged communities. But to succeed in these policies would mean providing minority students with the necessary tools to compete with their white counterparts. Diversity within college campuses is sure to result. What’s more, nobody will be able to accuse liberals of promoting reverse discrimination.
I don’t seek to provide a mind-blowing solution to systematic racial inequality. Instead, I wish to highlight it as the primary problem and propose a more constructive way of framing the affirmative action debate. Noting affirmative action’s problems and recognizing that racial inequality won’t be erased overnight, we should consider affirmative action a necessary — but temporary — means of ensuring diversity.
I, for one, await the day when we can achieve diversity on campus without having to tinker with college admissions.
Tommaso Pavone can be reached at email@example.com.