Friday, November 10, 2006

Affirmative Reaction, pt. 2 - To loosely paraphrase an old saying, opinions about affirmative action are like nostrils; everyone has two. Research from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press presented in 2003 reflects that Americans hold conflicted attitudes regarding affirmative action.

In the current poll, conducted April 30 -– May 4 among 1,201 adults nationwide, 63 percent say they favor “affirmative action programs designed to help blacks, women, and other minorities get better jobs and education.” There is somewhat less support (57 percent) when the question specifically mentions giving “special preferences” to women and minorities. A more pointed Pew question last year that stressed “preferential treatment” but did not mention affirmative action, past discrimination or women, found only 24 percent supporting “every possible effort” to improve the position of minorities.
Affirmative action has been a subject of controversy since before the Supreme Court'’s ruling in University of California Regents vs. Bakke in 1978, and to be of two minds about affirmative action shows that you'’ve probably thought about the issue more than once. On the one hand, affirmative action serves as an affront to every notion of meritocracy that American mythology rests upon. On the other hand, for its supporters, affirmative action is a harmless acknowledgement of and response to this nation’s long history of race-based oppression. A few otherwise privileged white kids not withstanding, no one really gets hurt, a few people benefit, and everybody feels better in the end. Perhaps that explains the program'’s durability over several decades.

When I think upon my own experience after high school and critically examine the pros and cons of affirmative action more generally, it occurs to me that one of the most common arguments made against affirmative action is the least effective. Affirmative action’s detractors make the case that the program is injurious to notions that suggest that merit needs to be the determining factor in college admissions. The fact is that affirmative action does less harm to the idea of merit than things like legacy admissions and athletic scholarships to colleges, and the “old-boy network” in the private sector.

Because we cannot define "merit” any more absolutely than we can define “freedom” or “democracy,” we can only define merit in its absence. (Is merit defined by performance in the classroom or on standardized tests? Should merit be based at all on past performance or on untapped potential? Is achievement in the face of overwhelming odds such as a substandard educational environment, family dissolution or financial stress a form of current merit?) It is therefore nearly impossible to say with absolute certainty that students who enter colleges under the auspices of affirmative action programs are generally of less merit relative to their peers who are denied admission. Indeed, what often masquerades as academic merit is simply the result of expensive preparation, such as private tutoring and SAT prep courses.

The ambiguity surrounding the definition of merit complicates any discussion of the benefits of affirmative action. But at the same time, affirmative action as it is most commonly applied in the setting of education creates its own complications as it regards the discussion of qualifications, in that it necessitates separate systems for evaluating candidates that are almost universally based on the race of the applicant. I must confess that my disappointment with affirmative action stems from its lack of efficacy in improving the quality of life for the larger black community, irrespective of affirmative action'’s impact on my life personally. On that score, affirmative action has been an ineffective tool for the uplift of the masses of African Americans.

More to follow...

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