A colorblind case for income-based affirmative action

October 27, 2011

Recently, while filling out forms for a fellowship, I found myself confronted with the all too familiar race-based form that instructs me to please mark the box titled “White/Caucasian.” Of course, if I object to providing this information, I do have the option of marking the corresponding box. But I think it’s safe to say that marking the “I decline to respond” box is basically saying, “I’m white or another race that isn’t considered diverse enough for this institution.”

Initially, lawmakers intended affirmative action to bring racial and cultural diversity and equality to universities, which it succeeded in doing. It also, however, succeeded in perpetuating the same kind of racism it was created to balance by including race as a factor in the admission process. This debate has resurfaced in the past few weeks after the University of California schools publicly announced that they would begin to take race into account in admissions due to the drop in racial diversity on campuses. In 2003, the UC schools decided to end the use of affirmative action in admissions, but as a result, they have seen a significant drop in African-American and Hispanic students.

The decision has been met with public outcry and heated debate on the constitutionality of considering race in the admissions process in public universities. A bake sale held by the College Republicans at UC Berkeley caught the attention of national media when they varied the price of cookies by the race of the buyer—$2.00 for Whites/Caucasians, $1.50 for Asians/Asian-Americans, $1.00 for Latinos/Hispanics, $0.75 for Blacks/African-Americans, and $0.25 for Native Americans.

While the benefits of a racially diverse campus are many, the discrimination of affirmative action can no longer be denied. At the root of affirmative action is the acknowledgement that some prospective students have to endure numerous hardships and these students deserve more consideration than a more privileged student. What affirmative action fails to acknowledge, however, is that though there is a strong correlation between race and opportunity, it is not a matter of causation.

To assume that because a student is a minority, he or she has not received the same educational opportunities might be correct the majority of the time. But it is not because of the color of the student’s skin; it is, rather, because of the socio-economic status of the student. To equate socio-economic status with race sets a dangerous precedent and in effect only perpetuates racial stereotyping and profiling.

And students of the UC schools aren’t the only ones up in arms. Abigail Fisher, a white woman from Sugar Land, Texas, claims that she was denied admission to the University of Texas because of her race. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on this case during this term and re-evaluate the constitutionality of the Grutter v. Bollinger decision that allowed for racial preference to play a role in higher education.

Though it is unlikely that Fisher will be able to prove that her denial at UT came down solely to a question of race, the very fact that it played a part is a problem. If, on the other hand, Fisher was denied admission because her father is in the top one-percent of household incomes in Texas and was privately educated in high school while someone else—minority or not—struggled through one of the worst public schools in her district with a single parent working two jobs, then Fisher’s denial would be more founded.

I will not feign to be a victim of affirmative action in any way. I have not suffered a particularly intense hardship that won me a spot here, and I do acknowledge that a student who endured great hardship to get to Georgetown might, in fact, be more worthy of my spot. This hardship or lack of opportunity that affirmative action seeks to balance is not race-based, but means-based. If in the coming years, affirmative action goes colorblind and becomes based on socio-economic status, the end product might very well be the same as it was before. But at least the means would justify the end.

In a country that just recently built a national memorial to a man who implored his fellow Americans to judge men not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” it seems odd that we uphold a law that explicitly defines a man by his race.  Where Martin Luther King championed man’s achievement based on his drive, ambition, and most importantly his ability to overcome hardship, affirmative action champions race. Rather than judge a potential student on his or her achievements, it places him or her in a box—white, Asian-American, African-American, Hispanic, etc. Perhaps as a country we need to redefine how we conceptualize diversity. Perhaps diversity is not a color. Diversity lies, rather, in someone’s personal history.

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