Politically, affirmative action is nothing new. For the past 50 years, it has held a firm position in public discourse. In 2003’s landmark decision Grutter v. Bollinger, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the University of Michigan’s undergraduate racial quota admissions policy was unconstitutional but that the Law School’s policy of considering race among many factors in its admissions was constitutional. And just weeks ago, the Texas Fifth Circuit Court ruled that the University of Texas at Austin’s similar consideration of race in its admissions process is constitutional.
But the moral questions surrounding affirmative action are actually more pressing. Back in 2003, following the Grutter decision, I remember having an intense debate with an aunt regarding affirmative action, in which I expressed my concern that embedded in the practice were inherent assumptions about my value as an individual. And for me, Grutter was particularly pertinent because the university admissions process was only a few years away. I recognized that I was black and I recognized that I was a female, but I did not understand how those two facts meant I was less able to compete with my white or Asian or male classmates for a spot in college.
Perhaps my reaction was too firmly rooted in my own academic experience. I was very much used to outperforming most of my classmates, regardless of their races or genders. Indeed, this was something my aunt argued—she held that I was an exception, that the education system and society in general were biased against women, but especially blacks. Even a cursory look at the statistics indicates that the “achievement gap” between white and black students is real. Overall, white students outperform their black counterparts.
But I refuse to blame any achievement gap on purely systemic effects. I see many problematic trends within contemporary black culture that almost certainly contribute to the lower performance of blacks in school. Among blacks, one is the negative perception typically associated with high academic performance, the use of proper grammar, and active participation in the classroom. Such actions are associated with “acting white” or “not acting black,” and are thereby viewed as a rejection of one’s own identity.
Indeed, when I first arrived at Stanford, I attended Black Convocation, the official welcome for black students. A question was posed to the entire room: Who here has ever been told that they are acting white? Throughout the room, hands rose and heads looked around to recognize that despite regional and socioeconomic differences, the narrative was incredibly common among black communities. Think about the millions of American black students actually deterred from seeking academic success for fear of being permanently branded with the label “acting white.” That deterrence is largely being driven from within the black community.
And like the phrase “acting white,” the problem with affirmative action is that it associates academic performance and intelligence with race at a core level. Race no longer serves as a potential measure to correlate with academic performance, but rather serves as a determining factor of that performance. It assumes that blacks should not be performing at the same academic level as their white counterparts—that they are less apt to perform on the same level. Regardless of their stated goals or proposed methods, all arguments for affirmative action assume that some individuals require a boost because of characteristics that have no inherent bearing on their intelligence or ability.
By continuing to cling to a dated policy that continues to tell blacks and women that they are less apt, we continue to reinforce beliefs among everyone that those people are less apt. A policy that was once meant to protect the individual by ensuring that employers and admissions officers judge the individual regardless of his or her race, gender, ethnicity, or gender, is now used to do the exact opposite. It now encourages those employers and admissions officers to instantly deem some groups weaker and that is truly tragic.
Autumn Carter ’11 is majoring in political science and serves as The Review’s Opinion Editor.