In defense of affirmative action

October 23, 2008

STANDARDIZED TESTING reinforces racial and class divisions in higher education, according to a September report by the National Association for College Admissions Counseling. According to the report, "Test scores appear to calcify differences based on class, race/ethnicity and parental educational attainment."

The report contributes another argument to an already substantial case for affirmative action. However, in spite of the numerous arguments in favor of affirmative action, its proponents have mostly suffered defeat in recent years. It is time for socialists and progressives to restate our case.

Opponents of affirmative action argue that students should be "judged on their merits," based on academics and standardized testing scores, but these measurements only reflect the inequalities of the education system.

According to Jonathan Kozol, the average Black and Latino 12th-grader reads on the level of the average white seventh-grader. Is this because white students have greater "merits" or because we have a segregated school system? To suggest an answer, consider that the Milwaukee school district, with 77 percent Black and Hispanic students, annually spends $3,081 less per student than the nearby Maple Dale-Indian Hill district, with 20 percent Black and Hispanic students.

Standardized testing is equally unfair, as students in upper-class schools have more access to upper-level classes and test-preparation classes. According to law professors Charles R. Lawrence III and Mari J. Matsuda, "the best predictor of performance on standardized tests is whether your parents went to college."

Aside from ignoring racial divisions in education, affirmative action opponents also spare criticism of the real beneficiaries of the education system: the wealthy and privileged. As many as 15 percent of freshmen at America's top schools are white students who failed to meet their university's minimum standards for admission, according to Peter Schmidt, deputy editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education. These kids are "people with a long-standing relationship with the university," or in other words, the children of faculty, wealthy alumni and politicians.

According to Schmidt, these unqualified but privileged kids are nearly twice as common on top campuses as Black and Latino students who had benefited from affirmative action.

The brazenness of racist attacks on affirmative action indicates the extent to which the movement has been set back.

Over the summer, the Daily Cardinal, the school newspaper of the University of Wisconsin (UW) at Madison, published a racist cartoon that implied that students with "ethnic" names were receiving undeserved scholarships. UW's Multicultural Student Coalition responded with an online petition that demanded that the Cardinal apologize for the cartoon and the Cardinal staff receive sensitivity training. The paper eventually accepted the demands.

This was a welcome victory, but socialists and progressives must continue to challenge the unstated assumption behind arguments against affirmative action, that it interferes with an otherwise fair, color-blind meritocracy. In a nation divided by race and class, any process claiming to reward people solely on their individual abilities is doomed to reinforce pre-existing inequalities. Our education system is a mirror-image of the profit-driven society that produced it, one where a wealthy minority rules over an oppressed majority.
Paul Pryse, Madison, Wis.

Further Reading

From the archives