On affirmative action

12.02.02

With Affirmative Action back in the US courts (and the news), now may be an opportune time for me to weigh in with my two cents on the subject.

I don’t support affirmative action in university admissions – or in the workplace, or other such domains for that matter. It’s a dangerous thing to say that, especially for politicians. Anyone who speaks out against affirmative action is considered to be racist, bigoted, discriminatory towards minorities, or all of the above. The perception is that these policies are a politically correct way to help counter discrimination and under-representation of minorities in certain spheres, and it certainly hasn’t been very politically correct to oppose them.

My reason for opposing these policies is hardly original: to me (and to a lot of people) they’re just another form of discrimination. If student X has higher grades and test scores, but student Y gets admitted in his or her place simply because of the colour of student Y’s skin, then that’s wrong in my book – whether it’s discriminating against blacks, whites, or purples. Any decision based on skin colour is just another form of racism.

Oh, sure, it’s not that simple. Of course it’s not. Certain groups are dramatically under-represented in the top schools and workplaces, and these policies are only a way to counter years of past discrimination, proponents argue. Because of systematic bias against minorities, these policies are necessary in order to make up the difference.

But I don’t agree that two wrongs equal a right. Past wrongs cannot be corrected by committing present wrongs. And there are a lot of reasons why affirmative action, especially in the context of university admissions, is wrong. On the one hand, it creates separate sets of standards. In order to be “good enough” to get into a certain school, students from some ethnic groups have to achieve one set of standards, while those from other groups have another set of standards. All this does is widen the gap between these groups, because mediocre performance is considered “good enough” for some people and not for others. What sort of future community leaders does this create? Furthermore, some schools are so desperate to fill their enrollment quotas, they accept students who are clearly under-qualified. You can’t take a student who graduated from an inner-city school and has a sixth-grade reading level and plunk him into a university classroom and expect him to keep up. And since it looks bad, politically, for a university to have higher failure rates among certain ethnic groups, some schools even resort to passing students who should never have been there in the first place.

When transplanted into the context of Quebec, some of these wrongs may become a little clearer. Recently, it was announced that medical schools in Quebec will boost the CRC-scores of applicants from regions outside of Montreal by a half-point, because there’s a shortage of doctors in the outlying regions and students from those regions are considered more likely to go back home to practice medicine when they graduate. But tell that to the student who pulled straight As all her life, volunteered at every hospital in her spare time, participated in every extra-curricular activity, and devoted her life to her dream of being a doctor – and who had all the qualifications but was rejected from medical school because of this policy. Don’t we want our doctors to be the best? In med school applications, where a tiny fraction of a point can make all the difference in the world, a half-point is huge. Why should someone’s zip code be a more important factor in admissions than the qualifications of the candidate?

In another example, lobby groups have pressured the provincial government to hire more anglophones and minorities in the Public Service, claiming that they are vastly under-represented. The government complied, making a whole host of positions available to specific minority communities – and nobody applied! The government is having an extremely difficult time filling these quotas. Speculation is that the positions are of little interest to the members of these minority groups, as most qualified people are already working at jobs in the private sector for better pay.

Therein lies the crux of the problem. Unlike McGill University’s quotas for Jews in the early part of last century, where many Jewish applicants were rejected due to lack of enough places, these new quotas are creating just as many problems – but in the opposite direction. There aren’t enough applicants from certain minority groups to fill the quotas – and so schools have had to lower the standards in order to fill them.

A related problem is that minority groups are under-represented in universities because of a lower degree of economic affluence in certain communities leading to a reduction in the affordability of the schools. But there are ways to combat these problems. More financial aid can and should be made available to students who need it. There’s nothing wrong with scholarships or grants designated specifically for certain groups.

But admissions quotas? Hiring quotas? Different standards? Those have got to go. It may not be politically correct of me to say so, but in the long run it’s the only right thing to do. The only way to end racial discrimination is to stop institutionalizing policies that legitimatize it – no matter who they favour.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Lynn B* 12.03.02 at 3:13 AM

When you get right down to it, I can’t think of a policy that’s much more racist than affirmative action. Its net effect has been to keep minorities back, weaken self-esteem, perpetuate racial stereotypes and create new resentments. Minorities who came into their own in the first half of the last century can thank their lucky stars they were spared this kind of “help.”

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