BY ARIEL SMILOWITZ
In 1973, Allan Bakke applied to the Medical School of the University of California at Davis and was denied admission. At the time, the medical school had a special program that allotted sixteen of the one hundred spots to minorities, and although Bakke had better grades and test scores than most of the students admitted through the special program, he was still rejected. As a result, Bakke sued the school, and in 1977 his case finally reached the Supreme Court, where it was decided that the medical school must admit Bakke into their program. The landmark case brought to light the debate over affirmative action, a practice that takes positive steps to increase the representation of women and minorities in areas of employment and education. This conflict over representation still exists today, especially as the college process becomes even more competitive. However, although affirmative action may seem unfair to many, it is a complex practice that encompasses more than race and ethnicity, taking into account the merits and educational benefits of a diverse college environment.
In the context of the tumultuous era that initially enacted the program, affirmative action is not completely unjust. In the aftermath of the racism, segregation, and degradation that minorities in this country had to endure, the fact that a program meant to reduce the historic deficit of minorities in the workforce and college even existed highlighted the U.S.’s shift toward a more progressive society. But, in today’s times where integration and tolerance is more deeply embedded into American culture, affirmative action seems like a moot point. This is especially true for women, who now constitute about half of all college students. However, if you look at a university’s demographics, African-Americans and Hispanics make up an extremely small portion of college students. For example, at Harvard University women represent exactly 50% of the student body, while African-Americans and Hispanics make up only 15% of the population. Thus, although minorities have definitely had success integrating into society, they is more progress that could be made and affirmative action is still as relevant today as it has ever been.
Affirmative action’s primary purpose is to increase diversity in education and the workforce, and this purpose resonates immensely in a college’s decision-making process. The real controversy that erupts from this practice is preferential selection, or selection on the basis of race, gender, or ethnicity. In other words, if a university accepts a student because they are Asian, that selection is not only preferential, but as the Supreme Court ruled in 1977, unconstitutional. However, diversity encompasses many things besides race, gender, and ethnicity, so how can a university take into account every factor that makes a student different? Because of this dilemma, most institutions concentrate on some diversity factors rather than others. For example, they may emphasize admitting low-income students, foreign students, or science students rather than African-Americans or female engineers. Ultimately, many people are upset because affirmative action seems to single out race and ethnicity, however, most of those people never complain when universities single out other factors to increase diversity.
Although there is much controversy surrounding the implementation of affirmative action, the program should be viewed from a different perspective. Rather than cry reverse discrimination, think about what it is truly meant to do. Increasing diversity in a university is essential to providing students with an enriching education. Allowing students to be exposed to people who are diverse in not only race and ethnicity, but in thought, experience, and talent will foster a deeper and more meaningful college experience. College is where students come together to interact and engage, where they learn about life not only from books, but from the people they meet as well. So, in the end, affirmative action may seem irrelevant, unfair, and unconstitutional, but it provides students with the diversity that is needed to truly be exposed to the world around them.