The Mixed Blessing
of Affirmative Action
by Matthew Craig
A New Visions Commentary
paper published September 2003 by The National Center for Public
Policy Research, 501 Capitol Ct., N.E., Washington, DC 20002,
202/543-4110, Fax 202-543-5975, E-Mail Project21@nationalcenter.org,
Reprints permitted provided source is credited.
Endorsement of affirmative action policies
that allow schools to continue using race as a factor in student
admissions can, at best, be seen as a mixed blessing for the
black community. But while the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledges
that blacks should be guaranteed the opportunity to attend our
nation's best universities, their decision also carries the assumption
that blacks can't get there without preferential treatment.
Every American university wants the "cream
of the crop." They set their own standards, and only those
meeting these criteria are offered admission. Less qualified
applicants are encouraged to look elsewhere. This competitive
environment means those who "win" admission have every
right to be proud. It is an appraisal of twelve years of successful
Affirmative action robs many blacks of
this honor. Black college students who have worked diligently
are praised, but are also forced to live with the uncertainty
that their admission had more to do with the color of their skin
than their academic merits. And those "helped" by affirmative
action are similarly harmed. Through no real fault of their own,
they may find themselves lacking the same skills as their classmates
and must play catch up for much of their collegiate careers.
This might explain why the national college
dropout rate is 20 points higher for blacks than whites. Blacks
who would likely have succeeded somewhere else face uncertain
futures at universities where they are unprepared, thanks to
The crux of the Supreme Court's rationale
- that bending rules to bring in more of a select minority group
helps maintain campus diversity - actually creates the opposite.
It engenders a new segregation. As a student at an Ivy League
university, I see the psychological effects of this policy on
a daily basis. Many students who do not benefit from racial preferences
regard their minority colleagues as less competent. Numerically,
diversity may be attained, but at the expense of the prestige
blacks have worked lifetimes to achieve. Additionally, it discourages
What if the Court had ruled affirmative
action unconstitutional? There would be an initial decrease in
black enrollment at prestigious schools. This happened after
racial preferences were abandoned at the top schools in the University
of California and University of Texas systems. Ultimately, however,
black enrollment at other schools in the states' college systems
increased. These students became the "cream of the crop"
at those institutions.
Another drawback is that affirmative
action allows the larger problems regarding education to be ignored,
decreasing minority opportunity. Prior to college, blacks are
disproportionately represented in under-performing public schools.
The disgraceful state of such schools is hidden when their students
gain admission to top universities for reasons other than educational
merit. Reform of our public schools from the bottom on up would
help produce more minority students who are able to compete for
coveted admission at elite universities without the need of a
crutch like affirmative action.
As it is now, affirmative action can
perpetuate bad study habits. Even minority students motivated
only by the intent of attending a prestigious university will
not feel threatened to put in the extra effort required of many
of their future classmates.
In his dissent on affirmative action,
Clarence Thomas - the Supreme Court's only serving black justice
- quoted Frederick Douglass: "And if the negro cannot stand
on his own two legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him
a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone!... [Y]our interference
is doing him positive injury."
Douglass believed blacks could only succeed
when free. Affirmative action, Thomas implies, is not freedom.
Freedom is succeeding on the merits of one's accomplishments
and not on one's skin color.
Until racial preferences are abolished,
the equality and freedom for which blacks have fought for decades
will continue to evade us.
(Matthew Craig is a research
associate of the African-American leadership network Project
21. Comments may be sent to Project21@nationalcenter.org.)
Note: New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author,
and not necessarily those of Project 21.
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