February 12, 2017

REDDY | Why Affirmative Action is Necessary

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Everyone has dreams, and a college degree has always been seen as a crucial means to reaching them. As a result, more people than ever are trying to obtain higher education, and they have good reason to believe that the quality and prestige of the college they attend can have a significant impact on the quality and prestige of the work they do after graduation. Controversy arises when it’s deemed that certain groups of people have an unfair advantage in the admissions process.

I have listened to engineers — male engineers — lament the school’s allegedly lower standards for female applicants. They had to work extremely hard to gain acceptance to Cornell’s engineering program, while others, they claim, just “walked in” because they “have vaginas.” Despite the misogyny conveyed by this language, however, unqualified girls in engineering are the least of our concerns, when one considers the apparent injustice done when black and Latinx applicants with credentials inferior to those of white applicants are given what those white applicants deem preferential treatment in college admissions.  Such a practice makes it easy to question the fairness of the affirmative action policy taken up by most universities in the United States.

My opinion?  Of course affirmative action would be a blatantly unjust practice — if we lived in a perfect world. It would be ridiculous to give anyone an edge if everyone started in the same place: if women weren’t systematically led away  from pursuing STEM fields, or weren’t held in lesser regard than men;  if Black and Latinx people were treated in the same way white people are, and even if, in India, my parents’ homeland, “untouchables” or people of the lower castes were afforded the same opportunities as people of higher, “cleaner” castes.  If all conditions were equal for these various groups, then yes, affirmative action would be unfair. But such equalities remain only hypotheticals. We are far from attaining them, but affirmative action is a step in the right direction. In track, a “staggered start” gives the runners different starting lines to account for the length differences in each lane, in order to make the race fair. Affirmative action is a protocol that attempts to equalize the distance each individual must cross in order to reach his or her goals, to offset hurdles like racism, sexism and prejudices that come in any other shape or form, the indisputably real and unfair disadvantages. What some see as equality waning is actually privilege slipping, and society progressing towards a world closer to the ideals of equal opportunity.

This metaphor isn’t perfect. The track has each competitor run the exact same stretch, while affirmative action cannot enforce complete parity. It is merely a buffer against institutional oppression that does and will for an indefinite time continue to have a profound impact on individual achievement.  That oppression is the real injustice, the one that rightly deserves more attention than the ongoing debate about affirmative action in college admissions. The only thing truly concerning is the failure of opponents of the policy to recognize this.

Especially concerning was a conversation in which I was discussing the ignorance surrounding by affirmative action with a Latina friend, who spoke to her experience as a high school senior accepted to Cornell and shortly subjected to interrogations about her true merits. I was momentarily surprised  to find out the interrogators were actually Asian-American, an instance of another view of the affirmative action debate: qualified Asian-Americans being denied admission to universities because of their race. As an Asian-American, I think the argument is strewn with holes.

Some affirmative action opponents advocate for socioeconomics as the variable attempting to control for systemic oppression. However, distinct racial pasts indicate that race and income-levels are not separate but in fact deeply related. The notion that rich white students are only interacting with rich white students on campus conflates the issues of racial diversity and income inequality among college students. It also ignores that socioeconomic-based or race-based affirmative action is not mutually exclusive.

The fact of the matter is, many Asian-Americans can trace their origins in America to parents or grandparents granted entry and decent employment in this country on account of their  advanced degrees. This history is especially apparent for those who have children vying for spots in selective universities. Black and Latinx families in general have a different one. African-Americans can trace their American roots back to slavery, and many in the Latinx-American community have and continue to be held down by the hardships of being undocumented in this country, land that their ancestors lived on before European immigrants came to the New World and massacred indigenous communities. Even with the centuries of social progress in America, both groups also know centuries of violence, disinvestment and ongoing inequality. This is just one comparison that explains the “model minority,” a stereotype grounding the argument Asian-Americans have made in explaining the unfairness of the affirmative action policy in relation to their community. It is one that reflexively pits minorities against minorities, with defendants targeting black and Latinx student demographics which often only make up five to fifteen percent of the college population while white students, some of whom are also allied against affirmative action, can make up 65 to 75 percent.

A case can definitely be made for more Asian-Americans in American universities, but by joining the tired offense against other underrepresented minorities, we fail to recognize the bigger picture. To some extent, Asian-Americans who cite their higher GPAs and SAT scores as undeniable proof of racial injustice overlook the values of holistic admissions and plays into the stereotypes of being industrious machines poring over numbers and statistics. Good for studying but not much else, including creative and leadership positions.

It shouldn’t be surprising that affirmative action can actually be a stereotype-maintaining force in some instances. For underrepresented minorities, it can be a constant reminder of a perception that they are ‘not good enough’ to be on the Hill and can therefore hamper individual potential. It is a system that wasn’t created for us, for minorities, and does reflect a larger injustice. However, it is necessary in terms of its value as an acknowledgment of that injustice; setting the stage for serious policies that use its potential to make sure we may live in a world where head starts will become unnecessary.

Narayan Reddy is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at nreddy@cornellsun.com. Reddy Set Go appears alternating Mondays this semester.