Affirmative Action: Helping or Hurting?

Lou and I (Center-Right) pictured at the 2016 Envision Experience. Our Native American ancestry makes us eligible for college discounts and scholarships not available to others of different backgrounds.

Generally speaking, Affirmative Action works to provide special benefits for those potentially or historically disadvantaged through differing racial, sexual, ethnic, gender, or religious backgrounds and provide for them in the sphere of educational, social, and work related advantages.

Debates have been raging on regarding AA’s place in American society since the act’s inception in 1961 during the Kennedy administration. AA initially allowed companies to begin hiring without regard to genetic predispositions or beliefs and orientations. AA’s evolution into what it is today, a combination of executive orders that prioritizes the needs of minorities and the benefits that come with AA over the well being of ordinary citizens, has stoked great controversy. Opponents not only question the legitimacy of the policy’s place in a diverse society such as America’s, but also its potential usage to match educational or corporate quotas.

Such is the case in one of the most relevant and controversial scenarios in America today: college applications. People hear it time and time again: the student with a perfect 4.0 GPA and the volunteer hours to match has been rejected from their dream college in favor of a minority student with the same credentials. No matter how well versed and intelligent the 4.0 student is, he will almost certainly be second priority behind those who are eligible under AA, for the better or for the worse.

Affirmative Action as a primary determining factor wasn’t meant to be a permanent mainstay in the college application process. Sandra O’Connor, one of the Supreme Court justices that upheld affirmative action at the University of Michigan Law School in Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003, stated that “25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today”. Fourteen years later, however, AA’s place in determining college applications is stronger than ever.

AA’s very place in the sphere of the collegiate world can now be disputed. Simply put, times have changed since the measures were brought into place over 50 years ago. American minorities now hold prominent positions and a greater socioeconomic standing than ever thought possible during the Kennedy era. Our current president, Barack Obama, broke the presidential color barrier nearly 8 years ago and has helped to make great changes to the prosperity of our nation. Black women are more likely to hold a job than any other female population in the workforce, according to the Department of Labor, which places their employment rate at 59.7% (compared to 56.4% for white, non-Hispanic women). Minority approval of using race as a determining factor in college applications has also steadily diminished as well.

Native Americans and their culture are now also honored and defended by American society, and people have gone beyond the mark to remove offensive symbols and statutes once thought of as a normal part of society. This has been made evident by the recent efforts of the Army Corps of Engineers, which have “reached out to 55 tribes in over 389 meetings” to finalize the safest and most environmentally friendly route for the Dakota Access Pipeline. Many Americans stand with Standing Rock, and the support of the recent protests at the Minnesota Vikings game is proof that perspectives have changed over generations. In conclusion, the social status of Native Americans as a collective body has improved tremendously over the past few decades.

In addition, Latinos now comprise over 15% of the labor force and are expected to rise 4% by 2019, and Latino owned businesses are the fastest growing form of small business since the Recession, according to the DOL. Many would agree that these increased business opportunities are preceded by increased educational opportunities. And while business growth presents positive progression, it also presents a problem.

The quality of life and socioeconomic standing of minorities since the laws were passed has improved dramatically to the point in which programs like affirmative action ought to be reevaluated. It is even recognized amongst minorities today as being less needed now than 10 years earlier. On an equal playing field in an increasingly uniform society, no one race or ethnicity should take precedence over another, especially when it comes to educational opportunities.

The question now is: at what point do AA policies elevate certain groups to the detriment of others, and is that necessarily fair?

Lou Montelongo is a young, middle-class, Native American student who lives on the Cherokee reservation near Asheville, NC. Academically placed within the top 5% of students at her school, she is guaranteed a full ride scholarship to Duke based on her grades and her heritage. A normal year of Duke enrollment can easily be upwards of $70,000 with no scholarships. And while some non-minority students could receive credit based on merit, which includes class rank and volunteer hours, this credit simply doesn’t equate to the benefits that someone like Lou could receive.

“As an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee, we are blessed with many different things,” Montelongo states. “We receive welfare every 6 months, we have free health care, and every enrolled member has their college of choice paid for. Not many Native Americans attend college, so this gives us a definite advantage.”

While outright quotas were deemed “unconstitutional” by Grutter v. Bollinger, racial preferences are certainly apparent according to medical school data, which displays a clear advantage for minority applicants. This the root of the problem with affirmative action. Students can’t control their ancestry and physical attributes when it comes time to receive collegiate benefits. What they can control is their grades, extracurriculars, personality, and determination to succeed. Unfortunately, affirmative action ignores the importance of the latter and accepts that of the former. We are a nation founded on the principle of meritocracy. While by no means a perfect one, or one that has historically represented all beliefs, it is safe to say that our country’s foundation through this belief helped us to achieve a certain equality standard that had never before been achieved compared to America’s amount of success. Hence, we are a nation that believes that race and ethnicity should not be a determining factor of social drawbacks or benefits. Equal outcomes are not the same as equal opportunities.

AA, however, directly contradicts this belief through support of statistics that only measure outcomes. “U.S. workers with a four year college degree earn significantly more than those who have not completed college,” according to the Pew Research Center. Majors and career paths in or out of college are racially and ethnically fluid, meaning that they are not restricted to certain individuals with unchangeable traits. Ever since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, discrimination based on race and gender for applications has been totally and officially illegal.

For most seniors at LRHS, applications have ended, and colleges are already sorting through the plethora of forms received during the past few months. The boy with the 4.0 is anxiously awaiting for a reply from NC State. The girl with AP credits and enough volunteer hours for several normal applicants is unsure of her future as a Tar Heel. And for now, there’s nothing they can do about it. They will always be second pick.

A complete repeal of all acts, laws, and ordinances regarding Affirmative Action is a little too much to ask for. In fact, it is a series of laws that shouldn’t ever completely fade like the judges in Grutter v. Bollinger proclaimed.  In certain applications relating to poverty and inaccessibility to college, AA has its place as a necessary measure relating to certain educational opportunities. Decisively, action should be taken reduce the influence of AA as a contributor to the college application process. It continues to play an increasingly divisive role in elevating certain groups based on their unchangeable identity, at the expense of other equally qualified groups. Pride should be taken by American citizens in knowing that we are a nation of freedom and equality. While not a perfect one at that, our continuous strides in these areas have and continued to allow us to be known as the final destination for many, the “Land of Opportunity”.


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