Problem of Discrimination in Plain Sight

Race relations has arguably been the most divisive and hotly contested issue in contemporary American politics and throughout United States history. A solution to this issue in the past was to “level the playing field” through programs now colloquially named affirmative action. Many people feel that these programs are necessary to either counteract injustices or ensure the advancement of certain minorities. However, there is evidence to show that affirmative action has become a form of discrimination in and of itself through college acceptance rates and workplace quotas. Affirmative Action has become an archaic government program that caters to those that are longer in need of help based on evidence that is no longer accurate or relevant. The process of leveling the playing field might do more harm than good. One of the best articulations of this point comes from a story told by Clarence Thomas, which is told to us in an essay by Juan Williams in his essay “A Question of Fairness”: “Thomas told me a story from his boyhood to illustrate what fairness means to him. He was on the back porch, playing blackjack for pennies with some other boys. As the game went on, one boy kept winning. Thomas finally saw how: the cards were marked. The game was stopped. There were angry words. Cards were thrown. From all sides, fast fists snatched back lost money. There could be no equitable redistribution of the pot. The strongest, fastest hands, including those of the boy who had been cheating, got most of the pile of pennies. Some of the boys didn’t get their money back. The cheater was threatened. The boys who snatched pennies that they had not lost were also threatened. But no one really wanted to fight — they wanted to keep playing cards. So a different deck was brought out and shuffled, and the game resumed with a simple promise of no more cheating.”(Williams 5)

Williams explains how Thomas felt that story is like race relations in America. The end of the cheating, according to Thomas, was the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The dispute now is whether or not the government should return the pennies to their rightful owners, and if so, how. If whites living today were the equivalent of the boy who had the marked deck or the older boys who had stolen the pennies after they were scattered, then the answer to this dilemma would be far easier. However, the vast majority of whites living today have received little to no benefit from either slavery or segregation. In fact, most Americans along with their ancestors immigrated to America many years after the end of slavery, themselves both uneducated and poor. These other immigrant groups didn’t use or need government programs in order for them to succeed economically and to properly integrate into society while facing their own forms of discrimination. While not denying that minorities have been cheated, one must acknowledge that whites in America today bear little resemblance to the hooligans at the card game. This is especially true since many white immigrants were far more likely to be discriminated against themselves by those who benefited from segregation and slavery than to be among those sharing in the wealth. Another argument against affirmative action is that race is a poor indicator of hardships. While the average white person has a higher income and more net worth than the average black or Hispanic, there are plenty of poor white people and wealthy black people. Close to our own homes, Appalachia, a mostly white population center, has some of the highest poverty in the nation at 19.7% (Appalachian Poverty).

To assume that blacks are poor and whites are rich solely on the basis of race ignores differences between individuals within groups. Since differences within groups are almost always larger than differences between the average members of differing groups, this type of grouping is unfair. Since most applications for jobs and colleges require information about an applicant’s finances anyway, there is no more reason for them to assume poverty on the basis of race. Even if classifying economic disadvantage by race was justified in the 1960s during the Civil Rights movement, many argue that this is no longer the case. Blacks have vastly improved their position over the past several decades. Blacks have become the fastest growing income group in America. The result of this is that since the 1960s, the percentage of affluent black Americans has doubled. In some cases, blacks are even doing better than whites. Given this, it seems that problems peculiar to this minority group may be becoming obsolete. Since statistics indicate that blacks are getting closer and closer to the average income, many believe that it now makes more sense to base preferences on socioeconomic status. This way, whites who are as disadvantaged as the blacks that affirmative action is intended to help could benefit while ensuring that middle and upper-class blacks with no need for preferential treatment do not unfairly receive it. This would provide a true adjustment while reducing the racial tensions caused by these preferences. This would also ensure reasonable numbers of minority students while providing opportunity to students of all races. The case for socioeconomic affirmative action is especially compelling because according to Lino A. Graglia, very few children of the underclass, white or black, end up applying to the competitive institutions where affirmative action is used (Grapes, 48).

This leaves us in the position of giving preference to middle-class blacks over middle-class whites. If we really want to help people who are disadvantaged, we might do well to use socioeconomic status, which might have a better predictive value of disadvantage. Many who acknowledge inequities in America and acknowledge the need for corrective measures question the wisdom of giving preferences to members of the emerging black middle and upper classes. If race doesn’t necessarily correlate with a disadvantage, then maybe there is another index to use to determine disadvantage when considering job or college applications. Plous states that because racial minorities are at a disadvantage that there is a need for a correction. However, he concludes his point by stating that “unless pre-existing inequities are corrected or otherwise taken into account, color-blind policies do not eliminate racial injustice-they reinforce it.” (Plous, 2)

Plous, however, gives no reason why these inequities could not be ‘otherwise taken into account’ by looking at other factors, such as socioeconomic status. While some might argue that there are disadvantages independent of socioeconomic status that disproportionately affect minorities, it should be noted that almost all college applications already request information about the applicant’s family structure. Likewise, it should also be noted that the vast majority of college applicants (and virtually anybody who has any claim of being disadvantaged) provide detailed reports of their financial status to the colleges that they apply to in the form of financial aid applications such as The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Thus, all the information that is needed to make an intelligent assessment of an applicant’s disadvantage is already provided in college applications and could be used to make an intelligent assessment of an applicant’s disadvantage without resorting to race. Since race is sometimes a poor indicator of disadvantage, there is no reason to give automatic advantages to a minority applicant just for checking a box corresponding to their skin color. Despite the fact that SAT scores correlate well with grades in college, some minority advocates and affirmative action supporters claim that they are biased against certain groups. While it is undeniable that different groups perform differently, racial bias is unlikely to be the cause. Statistics from the College Board indicate that the SAT actually predicts college performance for minorities more accurately than it predicts performance for whites (D’Souza 44).

Even if the standardized tests really did have terms that were less familiar to students of certain races as is the argument from many detractors of the program, it’s still not clear that the tests are at fault. According to College Board President Donald Steward, “standardized tests are preparation for words and terms and ideas that students are likely to encounter, whatever their cultural background.” (D’Souza 44) In other words, even though these students aren’t familiar with these test materials and vocabulary, it is in their best interest to become more familiar. An examination of SAT scores by gender, race, and school types shows that Asians are a good example of how the SAT is not racially biased. In 1998, the average Asian score on the math portion of the SAT was 562, 50 points higher than the national average, and 34 points higher than the average white score. While some groups did score lower than others, these differences were not significantly larger than the differences between males and females on the math portion, or the differences between students at public, parochial, and independent schools. This suggests that disparities in SAT scores are just as related to the types of schools that students go to (dictated mostly by socioeconomic status) as they are by race. It is indeed very possible that the disparities between the races are caused mostly by the disproportionate numbers of certain races that go to public schools for economic, not racial reasons. Keeping this in mind, it might be better to give preferences based on socioeconomic status or even the type of school that a student attends rather than race. Affirmative action distributes educational resources in a way contrary to what is scientifically proven to provide the greatest return on the investment of resources. Grades and test scores have been shown to correlate strongly with performance in college (Study: SAT….).

The SAT has been reworked over decades in an attempt to predict performance in college. Statistical studies have shown that there is no better predictor of performance in college than SAT scores. While some compromise between the efficiency of using SAT scores to distribute resources, and addressing class differences in America might be necessary, I believe that a fair result could be achieved through socioeconomic preferences. The only way that the loss of efficiency that results from going against scientifically proven methods of determining who would perform the best in a job or school could be justified is if there was proof that including people through an affirmative action plan somehow results in an increase in efficiency greater than the decrease due to improper utilization of those same resources. While there are anecdotal claims that diversity benefits everybody, nobody has been able to provide a large body of research proving that there is a substantive benefit. By contrast, there is a wealth of evidence that shows that those admitted with inferior credentials through these affirmative action programs have a higher rate of dropout and delinquency than the general student population and common workforce. Therefore, from a purely utilitarian perspective, affirmative action causes an inefficient use of educational and workforce resources. In addition to hurting both white and Asian students, there is evidence that affirmative action may also have an adverse effect on the minorities that supposedly benefit from it. There are some who believe that affirmative action policies discourage minority achievement. Edward Blum, Chairman of the Campaign for a Color-Blind America Legal Defense and Educational Foundation says that while he admits that poor performance of minorities on standardized tests is due to poor education in minority neighborhoods, that he believes the solution is harder work and commitment on the part of those same minority students. He points to the fact that there have been countless studies and they all say the same thing- tests like the SAT are a highly reliable predictor of academic success. According to his article, no other variable – grades, essays, leadership qualities or overcoming hardships – so closely correlates to the likelihood of graduation from a particular college as does the SAT (Blum, 1999).

The fact is that affirmative action has outlived its’ usefulness and has done more damage than it has helped. It has been shown to make unfair placements in both colleges and the workforce in order to increase a diversity that provides no pragmatic boon. Not only that, but there is far less socioeconomic need for the program as well, with minorities gaining economically as well as socially. This leads to those of the majority paying for the mistakes of a minority within their own group, which is just as discriminatory and unfair as the discrimination when this program began.

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