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Columns

Rosenbloom ’13: In defense of affirmative action

By
Opinions Columnist
Sunday, November 18, 2012

Independently of the legal issues at stake in the Supreme Court’s affirmative action case, we must examine the benefits that Brown gains from race-based affirmative action. Brown is a private university, and so it will always have more freedom to implement race-based admissions policies than do public universities
All universities reap significant educational rewards from race-based admissions policies. These policies allow for a wider range of perspectives in class discussions, thus instilling in all students a more complete understanding of the relevant issues at stake. If Brown were to make admissions decisions solely on the basis of narrowly defined academic merit – GPA and SAT scores – then the quality of classroom discussion would decline significantly. Even if Brown were to consider socioeconomic status but not race, classroom diversity and education outcomes would still suffer.
Research validates what most educators intuitively know – that racial diversity in the classroom benefits all students. A report by the American Association of University Professors states that “racial and ethnic diversity has a direct positive influence on student outcomes and students’ beliefs about the quality of education they received. Empirical evidence from both faculty and student reports of their experiences also indicates that an institution’s racial and ethnic diversity has positive educational benefits for all students.”
I believe in the value of ethnically diverse classrooms because most of my classrooms have lacked any semblance of this diversity. I would have gained a more complete understanding of certain issues if my classes had been more ethnically diverse. In certain instances, I can identify ways in which my white classmates and I overlooked relevant considerations that students from different backgrounds may have discussed. More importantly, there have perhaps been many instances in which I was completely unaware of the negative effects of such a limited range of perspectives.
Many critics of current affirmative action policies argue that socioeconomic factors should be considered in place of race. I agree that enhancing economic diversity is an admirable goal and that race should not be the only factor considered. But to ignore race and focus solely on economic background is to deny that race forms a key part of personal identity in America, regardless of socioeconomic status.
Social science research indicates that people of different racial backgrounds have profoundly different experiences in America, even if they have similar levels of wealth. Colleges that want classrooms full of diverse perspectives should therefore consider racial identity in the admissions process.
As one of many possible examples of the effect of race on personal experience, research shows that African Americans receive harsher treatment in the criminal justice system than whites who commit similar offenses. In his study of the causes of incarceration rates, Kevin Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, wrote, “Poverty and unemployment variables never gain statistical significance. Percent black, however, is a positive and significant predictor. This suggests that (it) is the race rather than class elements of the underclass hypothesis that really (explains) incarceration rates.”
This prejudice is not confined to the sentencing procedure. It also manifests itself in the form of racial profiling of completely innocent minorities, even wealthy ones. Admissions policies that control for socioeconomic status but ignore race overlook the fact that race, on its own, affects personal experience.
Unequal treatment by the legal system is just one of many ways in which students of different racial backgrounds, regardless of economic status, bring different perspectives to the classroom. The presence of diverse perspectives improves educational outcomes for all students, and considering race in admissions decisions is one way to enhance this beneficial diversity.
It is a sad truth that skin color still affects how Americans are treated, regardless of education level, occupational accomplishments or economic status. A color-blind affirmative action policy focused solely on economic status seems noble, yet it ignores this reality. Moreover it tackles the issue of increasing diversity by focusing on something that is only correlated with race.
Proponents of the socioeconomic argument must also confront the real-world implications of their policies. Eliminating racial preferences in admission would almost surely decrease the amount of ethnic diversity at universities. Elite universities already struggle to compose student bodies whose ethnic makeup resembles that of society at large. Taking away racial preferences would only exacerbate this problem.
At an elite university like Brown, every student must possess a baseline level of objective academic merit. At some point, however, more subjective personal characteristics, including race, may enable that student to bring more to the classroom than a student with higher test scores. Race is clearly only one of many relevant subjective personal characteristics, but it should be considered on its own, independent of socioeconomic status.
Perhaps in an ideal world, racial preferences in admission would not be necessary to ensure classroom diversity. But in the America in which we live, race still profoundly impacts personal experience. It should therefore be one of many factors considered in the admissions process.

Oliver Rosenbloom ’13 is a history and public policy concentrator from Mill Valley, Calif. He can be reached at oliver_rosenbloom@brown.edu.

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  1. Crimson Tiger says:

    Excellent article, Mr. Rosenbloom! Kudos to you for acknowledging and owning up to your white privilege. That’s more than can be said for the other Oliver (i.e. Oliver Hudson ’14) who published a piece in this fine publication on the very same day as you. Two Olivers: one who is aware of his white privilege and compassionate about issues affecting people of color and another who is completely oblivious to his unmerited racial privilege and whose ideas only serve to perpetuate systemic racism and white supremacy. Thank goodness the issue of affirmative action is being treated by the former Oliver rather than the latter!

  2. The social science evidence goes both ways on whether there are actually educational benefits to “diversity.” The list of costs to using racial and ethnic discrimination in order to achieve”diversity,” on the other hand, is long and largely irrefutable: It is personally unfair, passes over better qualified students, and sets a disturbing legal, political, and moral precedent in allowing racial discrimination; it creates resentment; it stigmatizes the so-called beneficiaries in the eyes of their classmates, teachers, and themselves, as well as future employers, clients, and patients; it fosters a victim mindset, removes the incentive for academic excellence, and encourages separatism; it compromises the academic mission of the university and lowers the overall academic quality of the student body; it creates pressure to discriminate in grading and graduation; it breeds hypocrisy within the school; it encourages a scofflaw attitude among college officials; it mismatches students and institutions, guaranteeing failure for many of the former; it papers over the real social problem of why so many African Americans and Latinos are academically uncompetitive; and it gets states and schools involved in unsavory activities like deciding which racial and ethnic minorities will be favored and which ones not, and how much blood is needed to establish group membership. Q.E.D.: Racial preferences ought not to be used.

  3. Minnesota Vice <3 says:

    I like that one of these comments implies that resentment toward people who benefit from AA is valid without saying that resentment toward white people and the structural benefits they receive is also valid. I wonder why. How interesting of them.

  4. While I believe the intentions of the article are mostly “noble,” the content demonstrates precisely why we have policies like affirmative action in the first place. The author missed the point of AA entirely – we don’t (or rather, shouldn’t) champion it because it benefits all students at the school, improving the quality of education for those white kids who were so entrenched in their homogenous classrooms that they need someone to tell them what its like to be black, or in jail, or both. At that point, they should be more concerned about pulling down the average “perspective” rather than relying on others to pull it up. Affirmative action lets great students to go to great schools by acknowledging that their on-paper qualifications likely reflect the race-based discrimination they’ve faced throughout their education. I know its hard to believe, but its really (really) not about you.

  5. You’re argument is inherently racist. Any consideration of separating races is. If you want to take us back to the Jim Crow South, then pursue AA, however if you want true equality and people to no longer be viewed based on their race, then why don’t we just put race to the side and look at people as people.

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