Affirmative action explained

Affirmative action explained
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The Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments regarding the constitutionality of academic affirmative action last week, in a case widely expected to further chip away at one of the country’s most symbolically important — but widely contested — racial justice initiatives of the post-segregation era.

Abigail Noel Fisher was a high school kid in Texas with decent, but not outstanding marks. But to go to college in Texas outstanding marks are what you need, since under a 1997 law public universities are legally required to reserve 80% of their available seats for students graduating in the top 10% of their 12th grade class. Her easiest path blocked, Fisher could only apply to her preferred college, the University of Texas, as a member of the sup-par 20%, though this proved a challenge, too. Like many American schools, U of T uses a complicated set of criteria to judge the desirability of students with undesirable grades, including community involvement, extracurriculars, character, and… race.  And apparently they had enough whites like Ms. Fisher already, because she was rejected.

The case of Fisher v. University of Texas thus posits the not-at-all novel argument that Abby was discriminated against arbitrarily on the basis of her ethnicity, in direct violation of the US constitution’s post-Civil War 14th Amendment, which of course guarantees all Americans “equal protection of the laws.” This argument against affirmative action is so old and so predictable, in fact, that there have already been two other Supreme Court based on pretty much the same premise.

Back in the 1970s, the University of California had a program whereby a set number of its seats were explicitly reserved for minority kids. This happy bit of nice intentions would eventually become a big headache for the school, since in order to fill that magic number every year, academic standards often had to be dramatically lowered as enrolment officials scrambled to find enough minorities to make their arbitrary quota. In 1978 a white kid named Allan Bakke sued the school, arguing that quotas of this sort, that discriminate against qualified whites like him in order to allow sub-par blacks, was clearly racist and unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court agreed. It is not racist to actively seek black students, said the Court — they are clearly a historically disadvantaged minority that deserve a hand-up — but you can’t be so brazen as to attach numbers to it.

The Court agreed with itself in 2003, when yet another upset white kid, this one named Barbara Grutter, complained that the University of Michigan had denied her a seat in the name of racial fairness, too. Because she was not the victim of an explicit quota, however — but rather the admissions department’s more general push for diversity  — the Court was not troubled. Multiculturalism in the student body remains an important and laudable goal for the good of American education, the justices ruled, though, in writing the majority opinion, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor presumptuously predicted that “25 years from now the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary” to further that objective.

It’s only been nine years, but already that logic seems to be crumbling under a more conservative court. Last week’s arguments saw all the right-leaning justices aggressively dispute the distinction between quotas and “diversity,” since presumably the latter goal can only be objectively measured with some kinda number — otherwise it’s not much of a goal at all. The university lawyers, backed by the Obama administration’s solicitor-general didn’t really have a good response, and simply doubled-down on the argument that campus diversity is a positive educational end unto itself. That argument is in turn supported by an enormous pile of amacus affidavits from leading members of the American academic, business, and military establishments, all claiming that the country’s leaders of tomorrow simply have to be educated in a diverse setting in order to be enlightened and employable.

It’s interesting to ponder the linguistics of the phrase “affirmative action” in such a context. The idea that affirmative action should actually “affirm” something — ie, that African Americans have been historically disadvantaged and kept ignorant through deliberate state policy — seems to have given way to a far less affirmational belief in the generic good of tolerant shoulder-rubbing in an educational environment that appropriately reflects the multi-racial nature of 21st century American society, and indeed the wider world.

Black (and Hispanic) under-performance in high schools remains, but most now attribute this to a fundamental problem of economics and resources — crappy inner-city schools and the like — as opposed to a more unapologetically bigoted society that actively conspires to keep nonwhites down. Indeed, as the conservative judges themselves noted, the very fact that America now possesses a strong black middle class essentially warps the entire affirmative action system in weird ways — it would have been possible, for instance, for a white girl like Abigail Fisher to lose her spot at the University of Texas to a black guy considerably more affluent than herself — a scenario that would have been largely unheard of in the early Civil Rights era.

Race will probably remain one of the most defining realities of American society for a long time to come, and as immigration, miscegenation, and integration continues to increase, the challenges of building a workably multicultural country will continue to exceed the simple solutions of the 1960s. At the same time, however, it’s also becoming clear that class — as in, the division between the wealthy elite and everyone else — is possibly an even more existential dilemma for national unity.

In the unlikely case the Supreme Court does rule against Ms. Fisher, it will almost certainly be because the justices have acknowledged that race is still a fairly accurate proxy for class; if they rule for her, it’ll be an admission that America is no longer that simple.

A conclusion we’ll definitely not hear, however, is that the grand goal of building a truly egalitarian country has finally been achieved.


  1. Dan

    I have yet to hear a compelling argument for why an affirmative action policy based solely on a student's economic background would be bad. It makes sure the people who most require assistance, the poor, are helped, and it disproportionately helps historically poorer groups, such as Blacks and Hispanics.

  2. Sven

    I agree 100% that it SHOULD be done on economic background. Unfortunately, it's hard to nail down. There are a million ways to look poorer than you really are. Making assumptions about race is the quick-but-imperfect workaround.

  3. Jake_Ackers

    A poor white person in Kentucky is not the same as a middle class black person in Georgia (which is a majority black state) or even another poor person regardless of race from another state. Who gets admitted then? That's why the entire candidate should be considered not just one overwriting factor whether it be race or economic background.

    Moreover, there are plenty of good public schools that although they are not as prestigious are itching to admit anyone just to fill seats. And provide society with just as good professionals as other schools. Better to attend a place you actually graduate from then just be admitted to somewhere you can't solely for numbers sake. It's setting people up for failure. Education is the important thing more so than the name brand of the school.

  4. M Anderson

    Well, let's chew through an example.

    Here are six students:
    – Andy, whose parents are divorced. He lives with his mother and stepfather, who between them earn $40,000 per year. His father remarried; he and his stepmother are fabulously wealthy, but have essentially disowned him. (The stepmother doesn't care for children. At all.)
    – Bert, whose parents earn $90,000 between them, but have to spend $60,000 of it on medical expenses supporting his older sister's long-term disability.
    – Chloe, who "aged out" of the foster care system and has no savings, but–as a left-handed Randian wheelchair-using lesbian who speaks fluent Klingon–has attracted $10,000 in non-academic scholarships and bursaries, automatically renewable for up to 4 years.
    – David, an utterly normal lower-middle-class student, whose married parents earn $50,000 per year.
    – Ellie, who is 30 years old and financially independent, and expects that–once she factors in the hours she'll need to devote to coursework and studying–will earn $25,000 per year working as a waitress.
    – Francie, whose parents have only been a burden to her and is also working to raise a teenaged sister, but who has managed to pick herself up, clean herself off, earn a community college certification, and presently pulls in $50,000 per year as a part-time (but damn good) bookkeeper.

    Which of these students is in the most acute financial need? Who is worst-off? Who is the most deserving of a special boost or leg up?

    Universities can't just go by parental income, because often that's misleading. (What if the child is estranged? What if the parents have only a negligible income, but some other relative is willing to fund the student's education? What if the entire family is broke, but their own spouse is in a position to support them?) There are wheels within wheels here and it's virtually impossible for any system to account for all possible scenarios. (At least not without extensive documentation and probably even interviews, at which point it may be cheaper for the university to just admit *everybody* rather than hiring the staff to snoop around.)

  5. Dan

    You clearly have never filled out a FAFSA, because all of the factors you list are accounted for, and would be known by the university she's applying to enter. But nice try.

  6. M Anderson

    As it happens, I have. And you are being unnecessarily dismissive and condescending, especially as you're whizzing right by my actual points. But nice try.

    We aren't talking about financial aid. Like, at all. Financial aid packages would contain some of that information (but not nearly all of it, so you can get right off that smarmy horse of yours), but you can't just transpose it for several reasons.

    Most prominently, you're completely ignoring the fact that we aren't talking about geniuses who are unfairly being held back because of social class: we're talking about those students who are so borderline that we need to give their application an extra kick just to get them in the door. With this in mind, weighting the admissions process to benefit those students who can demonstrate greatest financial need is actually a spectacularly bad idea. (Say what you will about spoiled legacy admittees with trust funds, very few of them have to work 40 hours a week to keep the money flowing.) While college admission is a great way to improve such a person's lot in life, it does them no good at all if they drop out because of external pressures or abject financial need.

    A system which accepts all of the clever people, then fills the rest of the seats with those who are the most impoverished, would, in practice, probably be something of a dropout factory. You need to go way beyond financial aid information in order to actually assess whether or not someone is likely to sink or swim once the pressures of university study are applied.

    There's much more complexity behind making a good admissions decision than simply figuring out who's poor. There may be some good to be said for an admissions policy which favours applicants from poorer backgrounds as a means of promoting social mobility, but so much of that is so subjective that–again–it's probably not worth the effort.

  7. Dryhad

    Your argument of why accepting only the poor is a "spectacularly bad idea" is not invalid, but it misses a large portion of the equation by assuming the limiting factor is a student's likelihood of dropping out for non-academic reasons. Offering educational opportunities first to those who will benefit most from them strikes me as a spectacularly _good_ idea. While the probability of a given student being unable to see their course through to graduation is of course an important consideration, it's certainly not the only and perhaps not even the most important thing universities should be examining in admissions.

  8. Jake_Ackers

    Not everyone needs to go to Columbia, Harvard or Yale. Frankly, there are quite a few if admitted solely based on race without regard to grades will just fail out. There are plenty of good cheap no name public schools who are itching to admit anyone just to fill seats. Again if a minority qualifies just as good as a white person, then if diversity is needed, admit them. But if the minority doesn't qualify then why set them up for failure? You can give someone a hand up but if they aren't ready then why force it? Again race should be ONE factor, but never THEE factor.

  9. Jack B Nimble

    FAFSA does not know (or care) that just because my parents had a good income, that didn't change the fact that they were not going to pay for my college or any of my sibilngs. (They felt it necessary for us (and them) to make it on our own.) That meant that all of us were denied pell grants, because of parental income. It wasn't until after we turned 25 (the age parent's income is no longer considered) that those financial aids were available to us.

  10. Jake_Ackers

    What if you filed as independent? I know people that have and parental income has no bearing but then you have to make at least $10k a year to qualify as independent.

  11. Patrick

    Do/did you personally have debt? Do/did you personally have to work to put food on the table for your brothers/sisters? If you needed help in high school were you able to get it?

    Your parents may not have paid for you to go to college, but if you grew up in middle class America you went to decent schools with decent teachers and decent funding and therefor have an incredible advantage over the poor who had problems getting a decent meal.

    But this isn't about paying for college, it's about being admitted to college. Funding college is a completely different animal and should be addressed as such.

    It seems that what a lot of people here are missing is that low-income areas have little money put into the public schools (since the schools are funded by tax dollars and the dollars put in by the district/state/city are reduced due to low income).

    It follows that regardless of whether they want to do well, they don't have the opportunity to do well sitting in a classroom with 40-50 students where the teacher's primary job is to babysit the kids. This is the problem that should be corrected, and race has absolutely nothing to do with it.

    While it is unfortunate that you were denied Pell grants, the fact that you know what they are means you were educated enough to know to look for them. I'm guessing you learned about it in school (either from counselors or other college-bound students). The interesting thing to me about sociology of this nature is that wealth not just money, it's a mindset and a culture that teaches everyone how to be productive. In poor communities the mindset and culture is about survival.

    Your parents gave you more than you know, and had you grown up poor you wouldn't be the same person with the same mindset, you wouldn't have had the same decent public education, and you wouldn't have been able to pay for college (you'd have a different body of knowledge).

  12. Drew

    The number of minorities in a school should decide how much affirmative action is required. More black people are graduating in the top of their class and thus would take up the 80% instead of the 20%. However, she is obviously just blaming her problems on someone else. It's not like she was borderline about to be accepted and then denied due to ONE SINGLE minority taking up the VERY LAST spot. She was obviously on the lower spectrum of the lower spectrum and even without affirmative action she probably would not have gotten the seat.

  13. Brandon


    Regardless of if she was “on the lower end of the spectrum”, if the college accepted a single minority student with lower scores then her’s, she was still essentially bumped out by a policy of reverse racism.

    Denying someone based on race, in ANY part of life is wrong. There is no “well, it’s okay under this circumstance!”, if it isn’t okay to deny someone based on the fact that they are black, it is equally wrong to deny someone because they were white.

    As a nation, we desperately need to set the record straight in that regard. Special treatment is not how to make a color blind society, it just creates a growing anger in the majority for every time they, or someone they know is punished for being white.

  14. Patrick

    What about in terms of economic advantage? Wealthy individuals beget wealthy individuals because they have access to education.

    My parents could spend time to help me understand things I didn't learn, and send me to a tutor when they couldn't help me. A poor kid doesn't have that advantage. Does this mean they'll be less successful than me in college? Not necessarily, since learning is more about desire than anything else– I just happened to be in a position where my desire was able to be nurtured.

  15. Drew

    No one discriminates against minorities because of affirmative action. People discriminate and people complain about affirmative action. You create the barriers in your mind and instead of saying "I'm not where I should be right now to get into college" you say "it's someone else's FAULT that I am not going to college now." "It's the snobby rich people's fault that I can't afford to get into college" instead of "I should work extra hard to get a scholarship so that I can afford college." Especially if you are born with the Caucasian Privilege. This is from a WHITE male who was raised by a single parent and joined the military to pay for college because I couldn't get a scholarship. Not once did I ever think to myself "this is because of affirmative action".

  16. Drew

    And in case someone was wondering "white privilege" is when you get pulled over drunk as a skunk while driving and all you get is a warning, simply because you are an innocent little white kid who made one bad decision. Even though this is the third time you have been pulled over for drinking and driving.

  17. Anonymous

    The hell do you live that they do that? I live in Indiana, homeland of the KKK, and "white privilege" never absolved me of so much as a speeding ticket.

    Not saying the privilege doesn't exist in other venues, but…here, at least, you get punished no matter what color your skin is.

  18. StevieZ

    Actually college admission standards based on race/ethnicity discriminate against Asian-Americans. A student of Asian descent on average has to score on average 100 points higher than a White and 300 points higher than a Black to be accepted to a highly selective institution. I think whites are somewhere around 3 times more likely, Latinos six times more likely, and Blacks 15 times more likely to get into a university than Asians when they have the same grades/scores, athletic participation, and legacy status.

  19. Nathan

    Hey, "U of T" is Toronto. Texas is just "UT", and as there are several branches of the school, "UT Austin" or "UT Dallas" etc. are used if you need to be more specific. Of course, Austin is the best and so most people will assume Austin when you say simply "UT".

  20. Hentgen

    I haven't heard anyone from University of Toronto call it "U of T" in a while. Locals and students have been calling it UT for years.

    Basically, calling either University of Texas or University of Toronto U of T is reserved for nonlocals.

  21. Taylor

    Why does everybody assume a judge's position based on "Aggressive questioning?" It's probably the most competent Court in the English-speaking world, that's their job! If you ever watch Supreme Court of Canada hearings, they bash both sides to bits.

  22. Zulu

    I used to be against race-based affirmative action, but I've been in university for 5 years now and I am convinced that it does more good than harm. Accepting minorities that may have a lower academic standing than Whites does not greatly affect the academic standing of a regular school. In turn, the school receives a much needed dose of perspective reality and much lacking in Suburbia. Without it, schools would be dominated by like-situated Asian and non-Hispanic White-Americans.

    Beyond this educational benefit, minority students are at such a disadvantage because of their low educational access, nutrition, finances, and their hectic family situations that affirmative action is keeping these minority university populations afloat. It would be a social disaster to cutoff their major lifeline to the middle class.

  23. Jake_Ackers

    Why not allow them to go to a school they actually could afford and have the grades that match? Allow them to graduate from a school they actually can. Instead of setting someone up for failure by admitting someone solely based on race to a school or job they won't be able to be successful in because they do not have the grades or knowledge. Cheap public schools provide equally as good professionals as expensive private ones. Again race should be ONE factor, not THEE factor.

    Plus take this into account, states where whites are an overwhelming majority. IE: Lets say you are poor and from Kentucky and apply to a university in a state where blacks are the majority. Like Georgia. Under affirmative action the middle class black person would get admitted while the poor white kid wouldn't. Even if both are poor, why admit JUST based on race. Shouldn't the entire picture be taken into consideration. Like can you actually realistically succeed in this school. Do your grades reflect it? If not then there are tons of other good universities.

    Not everyone has to or can get into Columbia or NYU, I'm sure some county college or CUNY would help get the minorities and poor out poverty just well and those expensive Ivy Leagues. The education is the important thing more so than the name brand. Again diversity should be a factor but not the only one.

  24. Zulu

    You are mistaken if you think diversity is the only factor. Schools do not simply accept any minority that graduated high school. Their grade/test score composite are generally not so low that it is a detriment to the school to have them there.

    Admittedly, the better the school, the wider the academic gap between the minority student accepted primarily via affirmative action and a regular student will be. Of the LSAT scores posted online for this year's Harvard Law class, many of their LSAT scores were significantly lower than the median. The standards of top schools are so high and it is almost unattainable for human being growing up in Black America without some affirmative action. However, in the great majority of schools the difference is not that significant because the standards are exceedingly much less demanding than Harvard and other top schools.

    You could make an argument, then, that because the gap is large in these top schools – private schools you mentioned like Columbia and NYU – affirmative action is a detriment to education because it has to lower acceptance standards for these students. You must remember that these top schools purposefully and actively seek out minorities to reap the benefits that I mentioned of a diverse student body. They do NOT have to apply affirmative action like many public schools, which take their orders from state governments. Thus, we can assume that the autonomous private schools do not see affirmative action as a detriment to education but an overall benefit. If not, why would they willingly allow their education quality to erode if they do not have to have affirmative action?

  25. Jake_Ackers

    I understand what you are saying. Private schools operate a bit differently. I was just using them as an example. The problem lies with public schools. Replace Columbia and NYU with UVA or some other expensive fancy public school. My point is still the same.

    Diversity is needed but it might benefit the schools to admit under qualified students based on grades. But my point was, does it benefit the student? A student could do more going to a cheap no name public school, that they can genuinely get in based on grades. Than getting admitted via affirmative action to any other school. How many minorities actually graduate in these affirmative action based admissions? It's a lot less than those admitted via a normal NON affirmative action process.

    Sure it looks great for Columbia and or even a UVA but it's setting the students up for failure. It's pretty much a big lie, "sure you will do fine at Harvard" when their grades are nowhere near what it should be. Nor do they have the skill set or knowledge to kept pace.

    A diploma from a lesser known school is worth a lot more than an admission letter from a prestigious school.

  26. Zulu

    That is a good point. I remember reading one statistic from one graduating class of UCLA showing some 40% of Black students graduating vs some 70% of White students, presumably because the Black students simply were not academically prepared to meet UCLA's rigorous standards.

  27. Patrick

    I want to draw your attention to your previous post. You stated the reasons why minorities need to have special consideration. The problem though, is that not a single problem you listed was a "minority" problem, but every single one of them is a ECONOMIC problem. It's not a problem of race, it's a problem of money (or not having enough). So out with affirmative action based on race and instead base it on economics.

    Also, as for why top schools admit poor minority students: Because of business. Harvard/ Columbia, NYU… they all get their money from somewhere. When Wal-Mart donates $3 Million to a school, that school damn well better not offend the customer base of Wal-Mart.

    Hope that made sense… they admit minorities that would not ordinarily be admitted due to pressure from their "customers", ie the major donors. Also, virtually all schools receive state funding (even for-profit private institutions, albeit 7% of revenue vs 70% in state institutions), and so they get pressure from there too.

    Flip-side: If minorities are admitted based on lowering standards, then in advance I know that the black man in front of me is not as good as the white guy from the same school sitting in front of me.
    That's a huge problem.

  28. Jake_Ackers

    Affirmative Action just screws up the middle class. Who are too rich to get benefits but too poor to pay it for themselves. Quotas are bad. Simply put. A person's life experience whether its because of race or socio-economic status is ONE factor in the entire character of a person. Hiring someone SOLELY because of their race or gender isn't fair to either party. It should be one factor in many. Which IIRC is the way it currently is.

    The problem is affirmative action when taking only race or one factor into account is it sets people up for failure. Many people get into college but how many actually finish? If the school is 99% white and two applicants are the same except race then take the one who isn't white for diversity. But if the school is 60% white and one person is white with high grades and the other is hispanic or black with bad grades then why use race as a deciding factor? I'm sure that university has plenty of high reaching minorities and could find more. Otherwise you are just setting up someone for failure. Sometimes its better to go to a easier school and graduate than go to a Ivy League school and get admitted just because of race and struggle.

    The same institution that said you couldn't have a job or go to school because of your skin color now says you need a handout because of your skin color. It's arrogance to say the least, to assume that just admitting someone or giving them a job even though they are not qualified fixes anything. A cheap public school can do the same as an expensive private one without setting people up for failure. Again race/economic level should be ONE factor, not THEE factor. And btw no quotas.

  29. Patrick

    I grew up white and wealthy (I'm now 26). There is no reason that the black/hispanic/asian kids I went to school with whose parents made the same or more money than mine should be given preferential treatment. All things even, an individual should be considered based on their abilities. We, as a society, have decided that it is our job to help others who weren't advantaged growing up (difference between private and public schooling is dramatic– I've done both). This, I (and pretty much everyone else) believes is a noble end. But the primary obstacle to education is not race, it's money. A poor white kid growing up at a bottom-tier school is just as disadvantaged from an educational standpoint as a poor black kid growing up at a bottom-tier school– no more, no less.

    Isn't the ultimate goal to fight poverty through education? Under a system of economic "affirmative action" instead of racial, if the poorest are truly the blacks, they'll receive the most benefit. If it's Hispanics, they'll receive the most benefit. If it's the whites, they'll receive the most benefit. The point it, the system is representative of need, not "white guilt" for something my grandparent's generation did. No one should be discriminated or otherwise injured based solely on race. If this is our opinion— hey, white (believe it or not!) is a race too.

    I have never seen anyone discriminated against based on the color of their skin (albeit I am a bit sheltered), but I constantly see people discriminated against because they are poor. If a black/hispanic/asian walks into a business and is well dressed they are treated the same (in Chicago, anyway). If a white man walks into a business and is dirty/clothes are torn or don't fit/oversized clothing, they are eyed with just as much scrutiny as anyone else who walks in looking like that. Because it's based on class, not race.

    Bottom line: Problems with race are becoming less and less important, but problems with financial inequality is on the rise. Oh, unless you're middle-eastern. Then you're just screwed.

  30. Patrick

    Clarification: Racial issues are not become less important, they are disappearing in terms of traditionally discriminated-against races. Still, if you're middle eastern you got screwed via genetic lottery in this country thanks to a few horribly misguided extremists.

  31. SteveOrr

    Dan, your opinion is extremely popular. The proponents of affirmative action are finally attempting your address your argument in this latest case.

    They claim that economically disadvantaged minorities are less likely to succeed in college. Therefore they want affirmative action to benefit economically privileged minorities who can succeed in college.

    This argument may hold up. But, boy does it smack of elitism. I’d be amazed if the GOP didn’t use it to crush black/Hispanic support for race-based affirmative action.

    Zulu, did it ever occur to you that most economically disadvantaged white people aren’t suburban clones? I met quite a few in college. Some were jackpine savages from the UP. Some were hillbillies from Appalachia. Some were Okie dirt farmers. I was “white trash” from an urban California ghetto. Most of our peers initially assumed we were from a local suburb. But they learned to see us as individuals. That’s the primary benefit of interacting with people from different cultures.

  32. Jake_Ackers

    Thumbs up. People also forget that poor white people exist. For example, I know people who are mixed race and lower middle class. Now imagine their situation. Too white to get race based scholarships, too rich to get financial aid. Yet still mixed enough to get discriminated and still poor enough not to be able to afford education on their own completely.

    What about places like Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi where the states are all majority black? What about the poor white there? Or what about the upper middle class blacks in NYC/CT/NJ? Everyone and every place is different. Each person as an individual should be taken into account. Not just lump them as a generic stroke on the admission tally for or against.

    Not everyone needs to get into a Ivy League or Public Ivy to succeed. Go to some no name public school. The diploma is what matters. If better you get into a school you can graduate then just be some statistics for admission and then flunk out. Like I have said, a diploma from Boxtop Community College is worth more than an admission letter from Fancy Ivy University.

  33. rmjones13

    This is what I think of whenever I hear people complaining about not getting in because of 'affirmative action'. The point is, that there are a ton of other reasons why people might get in before you! Why is 'out of state' more acceptable then 'having a different skin color'? All campuses strive for diversity, in many different forms. If you didn't get in, well, it's because more than one thing screwed you over.

    Also- when the day comes when well-conducted studies come up with information that doesn't show people discriminate based on skin color or sex in professional and academic circles, then I will say we can chuck affirmative action. But it is still shown that with the same application, when the only difference is the name is "ethnic" versus being a white-sounding name, that the non-white name applications are selected as being less competent and are hired/accepted less…. so yeah. We still need affirmative action, if just to offset the racism that still exists like crazy. (Oh, and this problem of names also exists with male vs. female names! Females getting the short end of the stick, of course. Same application except for the names, and white men are almost always rated more competent. Yay subtle subconscious racism!)

    Does it suck for the few people it does screw over? Yeah. But (speaking as a white person), getting screwed over is a part of life, and as a white person I get screwed over far less than minorities when it comes to my race. So, would it have been nice to get a few more grants in college so I don't have to struggle to make ends meet in paying off loans? Yes! Am I going to complain about it? No, because I have a ton of other advantages that have helped me in a ton of ways.

  34. Jake_Ackers

    Good comic btw Jones. But the problem is that affirmative action is screwing over minorities, too. Why get admitted to a school you might never be able to graduate from? Just for statistics? The same institution that said minorities couldn't go to school is saying they need this to get in. Point is, allow people to go to university they are actually qualified. So they can't get into a fancy ivy league or even one of those big name public universities. What then? Go to a lesser known school they can graduate from and get a diploma and a job. Admitting someone who isn't qualified is just setting people up for failure.

    A diploma from Boxtop Community College is worth more than an admission letter from Fancy Ivy University.

  35. Jess

    For those who mentioned filing the FAFSA, I work in financial aid and there are a few things you should know:

    1. The FAFSA does not take any debt into account. At all. Mortgages, medical bills, etc. do not matter.
    2. Being financially independent is not the same as being FAFSA independent. There is a specific list of criteria that the student must meet, and if they don't too bad so sad, need your parent's income information. Yes, even your estranged step-parent. Can't get the info? That's fine, you can still submit the FAFSA but you can't get any need based aid. Good luck!
    3. If your family's situation is pretty bad, you can try to appeal to financial aid to change your financial contributions.
    4. None of this matters because a FAFSA is not processed if a student is not admitted, so this is all a moot point if the student is denied from the get-go.

  36. Sarah

    A quick explanation for why race-based affirmative action is still important even if you also have socioeconomic-based affirmative action. Of course being poor is a very big deal and has a major effect on the ability of an individual to achieve the grades needed to get into college. However, even once you account for socioeconomic status, racial minorities are still disadvantaged when it comes to school performance because of discrimination and other factors.

    Essentially, you can think of it this way: regardless of your own ability being poor costs you a certain amount of performance (just for example, let's say 10 points) and being Black costs you a certain number of points (let's say 5). So if you take 4 groups of people with exactly equal ability, you will still get different performance in school because of disadvantage. So if you are wealthy and white you have no problem. If you are wealthy and Black you are at -5 points. If you are poor and white you are at -10 points, and if you are poor and Black you are at -15 points.

    If you have a college admissions system based solely on measured performance, you would admit only wealthy white people. If you had affirmative action based only on race, you would add 5 points to the scores of the black students and admit wealthy people both white and black. If you had affirmative action based solely on class, you would add 10 points to the scores of the poor people and admit wealthy and poor white people. To fairly assess everyone, you would need an affirmative action policy based on BOTH race and class.

    The purpose of a good affirmative action policy is to assess the performance of individuals while taking into account the barriers that they faced to reach the level they currently perform at. This way you admit the people with the greatest potential.

  37. Patrick

    I understand what you're saying here, but what are the reasons blacks are at a disadvantage? You are saying discrimination… If you are black and you don't know what the derivative of 5x is, that's not discrimination– that's not having taken calculus. Literally the only opportunity for "discrimination" to occur in grades is in the subjective classes like art and English. As a way to head this problem off, more and more of the curriculum is graded based on structured assessments.

    Even in a philosophy class I took back in 2006 there was a standardized way of grading. The teacher literally had a list of buzzwords and if they were in your sentence you got credit for the sentence. Similarly, if the sentences in your paper have all proper grammar and punctuation then you get credit for the sentence. That may not work for something like a creative story, but how can you truly judge the story as "good" or "bad" if everyone's opinion is different? You can't, you have to come up with another way to grade it… based on accepted practice that is standardized across all students.

    I'm curious what the "other factors" are (and if it's anything that's already been mentioned in the article or comments section than I've responded to it– basically "black" is not a synonym for "poor", as you thankfully acknowledged.

  38. Sarah

    There's a great deal of data showing that even once you account for socioeconomic status, Black students still perform more poorly in school. There are many reasons for this. When I say discrimination I am not necessarily referring to differential grading. There are many ways that discrimination can occur so that Black students actually have less opportunity to learn. For example, teachers may respond differently to questions asked by Black students than those asked by White students. Or teachers may be more likely to recommend a White student for a gifted program compared to Black students with similar grades. Teachers aren't necessarily doing this on purpose, in many cases it's probably unconscious.

    As far as other factors, there are a number of ways that Black students tend to be less advantaged that aren't strictly socioeconomic. For example, their parents probably attended lower quality schools due to discrimination in previous generations. As a result, even if their parents have the same level of education as a White students', they may still be less able to provide help with school work. Black students often attend highly segregated schools which tend to have even fewer resources than those attended by White students of a similar socioeconomic status. Black students also often live in very segregated neighborhoods with fewer resources and greater levels of violence which puts a strain on the children. This is true even for many middle class Black students.

    You're absolutely correct to point out that race isn't the same thing as socioeconomic class and an affirmative action plan which considers only race and not class will tend to advantage middle class Black students who may need help less than poor students both Black and White. A good affirmative action plan should take a holistic look at each student and consider all types of barriers they may have encountered. For example, a student who has dealt with chronic illness or had to be a caretaker for a disabled family member should also be given special consideration.

    I'm actually an education researcher, and if you are interested in this topic I'd been happy to point you to some good resources.

  39. Patrick_K

    Sure, what resources are you referring to? I wonder what the underlying problems are, and what can be done about correcting them.

  40. Sarah

    There are a lot of theories about the underlying problems, each with different amounts of empirical support. However, it's hard to work out exactly how much each specific problem contributes to the overall gap in test scores, and even harder to figure out how to fix them.

    Here are a few good books on the problem:
    The Shape of the River by William G. Bowen, Derek Bok and Glenn C. Loury
    Black-White Test Score Gap by Christopher Jencks
    Steady Gains and Stalled Progress: Inequality and the Black-White Test Score Gap by Katherine Magnuson and Jane Waldfogel

  41. PTBO

    This is a really minor quibble but I was somewhat suprised to see Allen Bakke referred to as a "white kid". I mean, come on, he was 33 years old and he had served in Vietnam which is why he was applying to medical school a bit later then some.

  42. Sarah

    A quick explanation for why race-based affirmative action is still important even if you also have socioeconomic-based affirmative action. Of course being poor is a very big deal and has a major effect on the ability of an individual to achieve the grades needed to get into college. However, even once you account for socioeconomic status, racial minorities are still disadvantaged when it comes to school performance because of discrimination and other factors.

  43. June

    I can't say I really understand the comic. Is the toaster…affirmative action? Is the mayo just…mayo?

  44. Patrick_K

    Well you see, clearly mayo is reserved only for rich white folk, whereas the poor blacks are only allowed to eat toasters. Or maybe I'm also misinterpreting it.

  45. Etc.

    I thought it was pretty clear. The first picture is a black guy being incompetent (getting your tie caught on fire in a toaster would be a pretty low point for anyone) and the second is a white guy enjoying… um, white privilege? Is that the same thing as mayonnaise?

    I guess I'm lost, too!

  46. Kento


    I think JJ, in this comic, wanted to show problems with two extreme or overly simple views on affirmative action. You can imagine that the panel with Obama is within the imagination of a right-winger, the panel with Romney is within the imagination of a left-winger.

    JJ wants to avoid any depictions of Obama that may seem racist, though in a way that's what the comic calls for. The problem is the right-wing view would immediately seem more wrong and harmful than the left-wing view, which is not the goal of the comic, and that people may imagine that a racist view is JJ's view, which would also be a problem for him. Part of the problem may also be that it would seem nonsensical to portray Obama in a stereotypically racist manner, considering that Obama's incompetencies do not neatly match the incompetencies that racists ascribe to black people. So JJ has to make up an absurd form of incompetency, and maybe it isn't as successful as he may have hoped.

    Now, there haven't been any racist depictions of white people that white people in the United States have really found offensive and difficult to move forward from in the same way as black people in the United States have had to deal with. Some view white people as privileged (clearly simplistic, but appropriate for Mitt Romney), but being thought of as privileged isn't really as offensive to most people, so that can be played with with less danger.That being said, the relative lack of bite in an accusation of being privileged has in our countries means there's few ways of depicting it that by themselves can carry the weight necessary, so JJ must again invent symbolism. Mitt Romney is bland and safe (in the popular imagination, at least), white and rich, so he must very much enjoy mayo being served to him on a silver platter. It's silly, but I think it sort of works, especially in the context of JJ's comic about Harper being stunned by how much cinnamon Tim Pawlenty enjoys in his tea.

  47. Guest

    If the supporters of AA believe that there is an intrinsic benefit in ensuring that the university community reflects the wider community then they will, no doubt, support quotas for all ethnicities.
    So, each university campus would be 70% white, 11% black, 4% Asian 15% Hispanic.
    There, done.

  48. KKoro

    Don't most schools allow soldiers/veterans/cadets to get in on their military full-rides?

    Why can't military service be used as a social accelerant like it was used, well, pretty much everywhere historically?

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