Affirming Affirmative Action

I was dismayed by the mischaracterization of affirmative action portrayed in “Affirmative Action Detrimental to All,” an article published in The Student on Wednesday, Sept. 12. This article completely misunderstands the purpose of affirmative action. While I believe that racial diversity does in fact contribute constructively to any educational institution, benefit to the college community is not at all the function of affirmative action — rather, the goal of this program is to help bridge the achievement gap and ultimately to end the cycle of institutional racism that plagues our nation.

Affirmative action attempts to right a historical wrong: the history of racism in our country has created an undeniable disadvantage for minorities, through inherited socioeconomic disadvantage and lack of available opportunity for progress. In the article, the author states that, “prior to coming [to Amherst], [she] wasn’t labeled as a minority.” However, it is an inescapable fact that race affects the experiences of any individual. The unfortunate reality is that black and Hispanic Americans (as well as other minority Americans) have lower median family incomes, lower high school and college graduation rates and higher unemployment rates than their white counterparts. The only realistic solution to this problem of inequity is to provide minorities with opportunities previously unavailable to them, especially educational opportunities that will ultimately lead to socioeconomic progress. This means that, while race should not define any individual, it is absolutely necessary that colleges look at race as a factor in their admissions decisions.

I would like to address the misconception represented in the article that the acceptance of under-qualified minority students to educational institutions is a negative aspect of affirmative action. First, it is important to note that at our college we are fortunate to have a large enough pool of exceptional applicants that minority students accepted through affirmative action tend to be no less qualified or prepared for the College’s academic environment. But it is true that in many instances, affirmative action does grant under-qualified students admission to colleges for which they might not be prepared. To think that this is an argument against affirmative action is, again, to misunderstand the purpose of affirmative action.
While “justifying prejudices against minority students,” as the article suggests affirmative action does, is certainly not the intent, the success of affirmative action does not rely on minority students “proving themselves” as the most accomplished students. As long as a minority student accepted through affirmative action graduates from college and thus has access to more opportunities, affirmative action has succeeded.

Minority students who are unprepared for a rigorous college environment are, of course, no less intelligent or capable than students not accepted through affirmative action — they simply have not been given equal educational opportunities. This is the exact cycle that affirmative action hopes to break. How can we expect the pool of qualified minority college applicants to expand without creating a generation of college-educated minority parents, who will have access to higher-paying jobs and who will have the opportunity to place a higher importance on education for their children? Katrin’s article last states that affirmative action “creates a system in which some applicants’ shortcomings are excused without proof of extenuating circumstances.” The regrettable truth is that being a minority in America is an extenuating circumstance.

The article validly claims that many students admitted to colleges through affirmative action drop out due to academic and social difficulties. Rather than being an argument against affirmative action, this statistic should be used as grounds to fortify affirmative action and to develop it into a program that can provide academic and personal resources to its minority students who might be struggling.

Affirmative action is not an immediate, short-term solution to the problem of inequity. It does not address the issue of self-segregation on college campuses — an important issue raised in Katrin’s article. While I disagree with her view that it is a “false assumption that diversity of race creates diversity of thought,” affirmative action also does not seek to address the issue of diversity of intellectual perspectives on college campuses.

Affirmative action is not about benefitting college campuses, socially or academically — its most important objective is to open up a world of possibilities to minority groups who previously have lacked opportunity solely because of race. While matters of social and intellectual diversity on college campuses should not be ignored, we should not condemn affirmative action for failing to address these issues; rather, let us praise affirmative action for what it does accomplish, and let us hope to see positive change in the opportunities available to minorities in our country.