Whom does affirmative action really benefit?


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Caroline Foley

It started out as a good idea: increase diversity at college campuses across the nation and benefit those who may otherwise find difficulties in the process of being accepted into an institute of higher education.  But at some point, one must ask, how fair is it to exclude some at the benefit of others?

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, affirmative action is defined as, “an action or policy favoring those who tend to suffer from discrimination, especially in relation to employment or education; positive discrimination.”  Positive discrimination?  How can discrimination possibly be positive when it is, from the same dictionary, “the practice of unfairly treating a person or group of people differently from other people or groups of people”?  Apparently, discrimination is perfectly acceptable when aimed at those believed to be at an advantage.

Since when did academic success, hard work, and sheer merit come second to ethnicity and/or gender?  When applying to college, I want my grades, the ones I earned by foregoing sleep and spending time with friends to study well into the early hours of many mornings to achieve, to stand out to an admissions officer.  I want the years spent committed to my teams, my dedication to extracurricular activities, and the SAT scores I finally attained to be taken into consideration, not my ethnicity.  Why should these aspects of my academic career be overlooked because I do not fit a quota for a certain gender or minority?

Some students believe affirmative action to be so unfair and inequitable that they have sought justice from the legal system.  In the 2003 Supreme Court case Grutter v. Bollinger, Barbara Grutter filed suit against the University of Michigan’s Law School on the basis that its admissions policy was unconstitutional because it favored minority applicants.  Ultimately, the court ruled that the use of affirmative action in college admissions is constitutional only if it treats race as one factor among many, but is unconstitutional if it automatically increases an applicant’s chances over others simply because of his or her race.  While it did not wholly condemn affirmative action as being unconstitutional, the ruling brought light to reverse discrimination occurring in many prestigious admissions offices.

Similarly, Abigail Fisher, a white female who applied to and was rejected from the University of Texas at Austin, appealed to the court of law based on the allegation that affirmative action violates the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.  A section of the Fourteenth Amendment explicitly states, “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”  Ms. Fisher ‘s case asserted that by rejecting her at the same time as it accepted minority candidates with less impressive academic records, UT-Austin violated the equal-protection clause of the amendment.

In its final decision, the Supreme Court again did not completely rule against Affirmative Action; instead, it stated that it must be strictly reviewed and meet the requirements of a test known as “strict scrutiny” when being used in deciding which students to admit.  According to the Supreme Court, “strict scrutiny” means that a university’s use of affirmative action will be constitutional only if it is narrowly tailored to the situation.  The Court further explained that, “courts can no longer simply rubber-stamp a university’s determination that it needs to use affirmative action to have a diverse student body.  Instead, courts themselves will need to confirm that the use of race is ‘necessary’ – that is, that there is no other realistic alternative that does not use race that would also create a diverse student body.”

While neither case completely achieved its goal of doing away with affirmative action, each did its part in bringing awareness to the implementation of such policies.  However, affirmative action is still in practice and is used heavily at many institutions.

If it were my decision, every application would be assigned a number.  No name, gender, or ethnicity would be associated with the information on the paper.  Every person admitted to a university will have done so solely because of their own merit.  The applicants who are admitted will have truly earned their spot in a university.  I don’t know about you, but when I know that I earned something instead of it simply being given to me, I feel more proud and successful of what I have achieved.

Discriminating and excluding anyone on the basis of gender or race is clearly wrong, so why have we permitted it to happen?  Why allow any prospective college student to be left out because they do not fill a quota or fit ethnic criteria?  Admit students based on factors that they can control, not because of the identity they happened to be born with.

Equality means a level playing field for everyone, and I think it’s about time that college admissions offices understand the implications of affirmative action.