Affirmative Action in College Admissions

Racial preferences in college admissions are always a contentious topic. Liberals tend to view affirmative action as a way to fix the systemic inequalities resulting from our country’s legacy of racial oppression. On the other hand. Conservatives view affirmative action as overtly racist because it gives one group an unearned advantage over another. I find both of these arguments deeply flawed.

Where Liberals are Wrong:

Would you believe me if I told you that affirmative action was never meant to truly help the black community?

Well … it’s true.

The modern form of affirmative action was created by Richard Nixon as a way to quell the violent inner city protests that erupted as a result of large unemployment. In his first congressional address, Nixon spoke about the Philadelphia Plan. The policy called for goals and timetables for increased diversity in the city’s unions. In 1969, this policy spread to any sector receiving federal funding of any kind, including universities. It is here that race-based quotas were introduced as a component of university admissions.

Blacks were hired in higher numbers in both the public and private sector. In the early 1970s, over half of black male college graduates and three-fourths of black female college graduates were government employed. Major corporations even began hiring blacks in larger numbers. Between 1969 and 1972, total black income increased by 32 percent nationwide.

The program, however, had major flaws. The mandated quotas were easily gamed and manipulated. Employers and contractors would often just move blacks around to worksites where the federal inspectors were expected to show up. Employers would also place blacks in governmentally-backed job sites and not hire them anywhere else. Essentially, they were doing the bare minimum under the auspices of increased levels of employment.

This was especially apparent in the private sector. Private sector employers would hire blacks in back office roles, giving them little power or leverage. Oftentimes, blacks were hired to positions in “community outreach” or “urban outreach.” Although blacks earned decent money, they were kept away from the boardroom—where real decisions were, and still are, made.

Affirmative actions was further flawed in that it was only designed to help the black middle class. If you look at areas where the program exists (corporate hiring, unions, college admissions) it’s apparent that one needs a high school education to have access.

Richard Nixon himself believed poor blacks were not worth the trouble of working with. He infamously said in leaked tapes, “just little Negro bastards on welfare rolls at $2,400 a family.” His policies meant to back the blacks with economic privilege and ignore the poor. In this, he created a social divide within the black community. Middle class blacks with stable families were able to rise up the economic ladder, meanwhile poor blacks were left behind.

For the black lower class, Nixon had much different plans. During the 1968 election, he pushed for harsher laws that criminalized the black poor. He launched the “War on Drugs” that pushed countless black men into prison. While poor blacks were being incarcerated, middle class blacks  moved into nicer homes in the suburbs.

Because of affirmative action, talented blacks were pushed into different social tracks that took their destiny out of their own hands. Blacks became nothing more than a cog in a toxic system that the Civil Rights Movement wanted to destroy.

It is here where we see affirmative action’s real goal. It was never about equality. It was to give middle-class blacks just enough to stop violently protesting and allow the white establishment to continue to do continue business as usual.

For example, half of Harvard’s black students come directly from Africa. Affirmative action serves as a way for elite institutions to pat themselves on the back for appearing diverse, while ignoring the actual people who need those handouts.

Where Conservatives Are Wrong:

Conservatives believe affirmative action is wrong since it gives racial preferences to some groups at the expense of others. While that is true, it is hardly limited to black and latino students. Legacy applicants, students from geographically desirable areas, student-athletes, and men all receive preference in college admissions across the country.

In 2011, Harvard accepted 30% of its legacy applicants as opposed to 6% of the overall pool. Therefore, being a legacy increased your odds of admission by roughly five times. One could argue that this unfairly advantages those lucky enough to have highly educated parents. Yet we rarely see conservatives railing against legacy admissions. Legacy admits are even as likely to drop out of college as affirmative action admits.

Elite colleges also seek students from as many states as possible. In this way, they are seeking geographic diversity. If you are a student applying to the Ivy League, you’re more desirable if you are applying from an underrepresented state like Hawaii or Wyoming than applying from New Jersey or California.  Is this unfair, even though students from these states are usually better students than those from states with lower educational quality?

Men, in general, benefit from Affirmative Action in college admissions. Seventy-percent of high school valedictorians are girls. Girls generally outperform boys in high school and are more academically qualified. Women now make up 57% of college students nationwide, and it is only expected to increase in the upcoming years. Colleges believe gender-imbalances in education do a disservice to society; as such, men have become more valued applicants in schools. Using the logic of affirmative action opponents, women are being wrongfully discriminated against by top institutions. There are multiple statistics to back the claim up. In 2007, Yale University accepted 9.8% of male applicants as opposed to 7.5% of women, despite there being more female applicants.

Additionally, many college athletes are admitted to top academic programs despite having grades and test scores well below the school average. In 2008, the average gap in SAT scores between athletes and the rest of the student body at UCLA averaged 247 points.

If we are to eliminate racial preferences because of unfairness, then we should consider eliminating these other backdoors to admission as well. If not, then conservatives are being highly hypocritical.


I’m largely indifferent about affirmative action.

I believe colleges should try to create dynamic communities that foster the intellectual and social growth of their students. College is one of few spaces in the world where a wide array of people from all kinds of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds can interact with one another. This diversity helps expose students to perspectives inside and outside the classroom that they might not have any actual exposure to otherwise. This creates students that will eventually graduate into a multiracial society with more experience and cultural enrichment.

Despite this, the flaws of affirmative action are very clear. The program does little to actually solve the problem of K-12 education.

If institutions wanted to make a difference, they would invest heavily in Pre-K education and fixing public schools in poor communities. They would also work to ensure that children have access to nutrition and summer academic programs that would help them retain their knowledge. There needs to be a formation of pipelines that would allow people of color to thrive on their own merits rather than receive handouts.

A stigma is placed on black students at elite institutions because it is assumed their admission was based solely on affirmative action. And while I do believe this is unfair, it is the reality of the situation.

Affirmative action is a touchy, yet small issue. I don’t believe the specific institution one attends really matters that much and students that feel slighted should try to make the best of where they end up. Given the fact that colleges admit students for a wide variety of reasons other than academics, there really is no “fair” way to conduct the admissions process.

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About Corey Walker

Corey Walker was a contributor to the Michigan Review.