The Affirmative Action Debate Exposed

There is a most conspicuous absence in the affirmative action debate. That glaring omission is what both the proponents and foes of what passes itself off as affirmative action agree not to discuss: how affirmative action actually works and what its purpose really is.

Since the inception of affirmative action programs in the 60’s, no one in the media has ever attempted to clarify exactly how the mechanics of these policies operate on a day-to-day basis. Sure, college admissions offices and employers who engage in preferential acceptance and hiring practices let minorities, women and other “disadvantaged groups” in ahead of white men when all things are equal.

The problem is, in real life, things are never equal.

Affirmative action theory dictates that a black female high school senior from Newark with a 3.75 GPA and 1300 SAT stands a better chance of admission to Yale than a white male Choate student with the same grade average and test score. Actually, these cases come up once in a blue moon, and even when they do, there are other factors to help distinguish two competing candidates. Was that 3.75 in home-ec or AP physics? In what extracurricular activities did they participate?

These policies have always been shrouded in mystery. College admissions officers weigh their applicants’ GPAs and SAT scores in accordance with their ethnicity and gender. For example, certain West Coast universities want fewer Asians and more blacks, so they multiply Asians’ scores by a number less than 1 and those of blacks by a number over 1. Despite the lies of admissions officers, the vast majority of these decisions are determined almost exclusively by numeric indicators.

I learned about the mechanics of affirmative action firsthand as an office assistant at one of Columbia University’s undergraduate admissions offices from 1992 to 1994.

Earned grades and test scores were multiplied by numeric factors that actively helped minority applicants. Some of these arithmetic gymnastics were more discreet than others. For example, high school graduates were given a higher percentage score than transfer students with a few years of college who had earned the same raw scores. Transfer students are a whiter lot than straight high school graduates. A less subtle method was routinely admitting minority students with GPAs in the 2.4 to 2.8 range, whereas whites with scores under 3.0 almost never gained entrance.

Financial aid was awarded like this too. The general scholarship fund at Columbia is composed of numerous specialized scholarships that are matched up to each student. The lion’s share of the money is automatically allocated to minority students that specifically exclude whites, although no funds are awarded exclusively to whites at the expense of other groups.

Most Americans suspect that affirmative action works this way, but policy-making alchemists guard this secret as rigorously as police departments deny the existence of traffic ticket quotas.

In any situation where there are only a limited number of slots and an excess number of qualified applicants, one person’s advantage is another person’s disadvantage. Cut it any way you want, but that’s simple math, and it’s an equation that white male applicants understand intuitively.

Instead of simply admitting that whites and men get hurt by affirmative action and that this is the price they pay for the sins of their racist and sexist fathers, the proponents of affirmative action have become experts in deceit. Rather than having the moral courage to say that these policies are imperfect–but necessary–remedies for centuries of systematic discrimination, these lying wimps try to sell the dubious proposition that life is not a zero-sum game, that granting an advantage to one person doesn’t have to penalize someone else.

Is it any wonder whites are screaming for an end to affirmative action?

On the other side of the debate, Republicans and their core constituency–racists who would bring back slavery if they had half a chance–find themselves pushing class-based affirmative action as a logical replacement of race- and gender-based programs. Here we have the party that claims to have killed off the Soviet Union pushing the idea of an America deeply stratified by Marxist-style class divisions. Not only have they abandoned their vision of a society composed of an enormous Über Middle Class, they’re actually favoring redistribution of resources to even out those class differences. Live 32 years, and eventually you see everything.

The scariest thing about the new Leninist-GOP approach is how reasonable it sounds. Why, Newt Gingrich intones, should the black daughter of a wealthy brain surgeon get into Harvard or Merrill Lynch before the white son of a West Virginia coal miner? Why indeed? If their class-based affirmative action plan wasn’t just a thinly-disguised intermediate step before eventually eliminating all preferences in order to keep their country clubs minority-free, I’d be right there with them at the barricades.

Meanwhile, no one considers the idea that the need for any kind of affirmative action could be eliminated. This would involve pouring money and social attention into inner-city schools. It would mean governing minority neighborhoods as if they were actual communities rather than occupied enemy territory. And it would require a drastic reversal of the 30-year-old trend of stripping income from the poor to hand it over to the richest 1% of Americans.

On second thought, maybe we’re stuck with smoke and mirrors.