You did not get rejected from your dream school because of affirmative action. You got rejected because you got rejected.
“If I were black, I would have gotten in.”
“It’s unfair that minority kids don’t have to work as hard to get into top schools.”
“I would have gotten in if there wasn’t affirmative action.”
All these comments are things I have heard in the hallways over my last three years at Lick-Wilmerding High School, and all of them begin with the assumption that “less-qualified” minority students are occupying spaces at elite colleges that some non-minority students “deserve.”
But that is not how it works.
Affirmative action exists because minority students have to work harder than non-minority students just to be able to combat the racial biases that still permeate through our schools today.
In Brain and Behavior, we learned about the blue-eyes, brown-eyes exercise. The experiment was conducted by Jane Elliot, an elementary school teacher in Riceville, Iowa.
She began the experiment in 1968 after a student asked why Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered. Her class agreed to take part in it.
The concept of the exercise was simple: help students understand how black people are treated in society by asking them to experience segregation themselves. Elliot decided to use eye color as a replacement for skin color.
The next Monday, she informed the class that the blue-eyed children were to brown-eyed children.
Elliot gave the brown-eyed children fabric collars to wear so that they would be easily identifiable. Brown-eyed children had to sit in the back row of the classroom and were not allowed to hang out with blue-eyed children during lunch. Brown-eyed children were also instructed to use a different water fountain than blue-eyed children and were criticized if they made a mistake.
What Elliot found is that very quickly, her previously cohesive, sweet class transformed into a cruel example of a segregated community. Blue-eyed students began genuinely treating their “inferior” classmates as inferiors.
Previously outgoing brown-eyed kids became introverted and sat by themselves at recess.
The most fascinating part of the experiment came when each group of students was asked to go through a card deck and play a math game.
Both the blue-eyed students and the brown-eyed students were timed.
The marginalized brown-eyed students were much slower than the blue-eyed students.
Then, when Elliot reversed the roles of the students and made the same students who were treated as inferior the superior group, those same brown-eyed students completed the card activity in significantly less time than both their previous time and their blue-eyed classmates, who could barely make it through the deck.
What Elliot proved is that groups of students who are marginalized in school classrooms do worse academically than those who are not marginalized.
Marginalized kids are not inherently stupider. After all, when the kids in Elliot’s class were switched from the marginalized group to the dominant group, they went through the card deck faster.
They simply had trouble focusing on academics when the world around them pressured them to fail.
We need affirmative action to make up for this. Without being able to acknowledge how much harder minority students have to work in the context of the daily oppression they face, we will leave minority students behind and punish them for environmental factors out of their control.
Many states with affirmative action bans like California have already struggled to maintain diversity in state-funded institutions.
In 2013, the Black Bruins, a group of students at the University of California, Los Angeles, raised awareness about the lack of diversity at UCLA in a viral spoken word YouTube video.
Sy Stokes, the organizer of the video, pointed out that in 2013, only 3.3% of undergraduate male students at UCLA identified as black.
He also pointed out that UCLA has more NCAA championship titles than black male students.
In response to the video, Janina Montero, vice chancellor of student affairs at UCLA, wrote in a e-mail quoted in The Huffington Post, “It is difficult to eliminate this painful imbalance without considering race in the admissions process.”
However, many people still fail to see how affirmative action is necessary to make up for unfair biases.
In fact, in April, the Supreme Court backed Michigan’s right to maintain their ban on affirmative action in public schools in a 6-2 ruling.
The most prolific dissent came from Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Justice Sotamayor stressed the importance of maintaining affirmative action policies in the wake of Jim Crow laws, slavery, and recent voting laws designed to target minorities (like voter I.D. laws).
Justice Sotomayor wrote in her dissent, as quoted in an April 22, 2014 article in The New York Times, “The Constitution does not protect racial minorities from political defeat, but neither does it give the majority free rein to erect selective barriers against racial minorities.”
The New York Times also pointed out that Justice Sotomayor then mocked a previous quote from her colleague Chief Justice Roberts.
In 2007, Chief Justice Roberts stated, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.”
However, Justice Sotomayor’s words fell on deaf ears.
She was only joined in her dissent by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Chief Justice Roberts and the five other Supreme Court justices who weighed in on the case all agreed that states have the right to ban affirmative action.
Effectively, the Supreme Court has condoned the continual marginalization of minorities through college admissions processes.
It is not surprising that affirmative action is being fought. After all, the people who are in positions of power that allow them to make decisions regarding affirmative action are people who have not been marginalized.
It is time we stop allowing the oppressors to make decisions about oppression.
It is time we stop ignoring the lasting impact of slavery and segregation.
Most importantly, it is time that we acknowledge that affirmative action does not give minority students an advantage; it simply stops them from having a disadvantage.