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Affirmative Action: An Aid or an Obstruction to Equality? Part One

Sam Taylor

Posted on February 9, 2021 01:44

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With the desire to eradicate inequity in inequality firmly established in modern politics, affirmative action has gained much prominence in post-secondary education. But what are the effects of this practice? — and how do these bear on its justification?

In today's politics, discrimination is the enemy: the ultimate adversary to overcome in pursuit of social justice. With this, the prospect of affirmative action in education has gained sweeping, international popularity — implemented across disparate societies to combat discriminatory customs. But there's a problem. Though frequently hailed as a singular drive for minority success, affirmative action has almost no decisive warrant: each facet of its rationale is disputable, both supported and contradicted by the reports in its incongruent literature, not to mention the political ideologies that concern it. 

But through all these inconsistencies, perhaps some common conclusions on the efficacy of affirmative action can be drawn. To see if this is the case, we'll need to review the less-disputable effects of affirmative action — after which we can actually get into the justifiability of the practice. 

The foremost facet of the affirmative action debate concerns the practice’s effect on academic outcomes. Does positive discrimination increase academic success among disadvantaged groups? Or, does it simply hinder such groups in mismatching many minority students with universities they're unprepared for? To answer such questions, some have looked to graduation rates among disadvantaged minorities, comparing rates at universities that use affirmative action with those of institutions that don't. While some studies dissent, most researchers conclude that affirmative action has no sizable effect on minority graduation in general. Rather, it results in higher minority graduation rates at prestigious universities, whereas bans on such "positive discrimination" lead more minorities to attend mid to low-tier institutions. 

However, to draw conclusions about what this means for the desirability of affirmative action, we must look at what's more beneficial for disadvantaged minorities as a whole: is it better for lower performing students belonging to these groups to attend top-tier colleges for which they're initially unprepared, or is it better for them to attend lower-quality schools that seem to "fit" their academic backgrounds? Here, things become more complex. 

With respect to the lowest-performing members of disadvantaged minorities, attending mid to low-tier universities generally results in the best outcomes due to the lesser graduation and performance rates associated with very underprepared students. Moreover, with respect to majors in law and STEM, students' admittance into schools matching their academic preparedness is, at least initially, more beneficial than admittance into preeminent institutions (ibid.). That being said, evidence suggests mild affirmative action policies at selective schools would allow the better-prepared (even if not wholly-prepared) members of disadvantaged minorities to benefit from the resources exclusive to top-tier universities. The gains minority communities would receive from this 'mild practice,' however, would be relatively small. Though future studies may contradict these conclusions, they accord with the current paradigm in education economics. 

With these humble benefits offered by affirmative action, debate concerning the practice becomes a dispute over whether such benefits override the social and moral drawbacks of positive discrimination, commonly perceived of as 'reverse racism.' 

I'll address this issue, and give my personal perspective on affirmative action, in part two.

Sam Taylor

Posted on February 9, 2021 01:44

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Proposition 16, a ballot measure reinstating affirmative action, was rejected by California voters earlier last month....

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