The Supreme Court will soon review the Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin case dealing with affirmative action. In the original case, two white women sued the University of Texas at Austin for denying their admission based on race, allegedly in violation of the 14th Amendment. The court’s decision will potentially have tremendous implications toward affirmative action, possibly halting the policy altogether. Given affirmative action’s importance to bridging the distance between races, I hope that the Supreme Court makes the correct decision by upholding the policy’s legality with a tweak: change affirmative action’s criteria to simply account for socioeconomic background.
It’s true that much of America’s history is tarnished by oppression against minority races, from the expulsion of Native Americans at the nation’s outset to the segregation against blacks well into the 20th century. In contrast, supposed equality between races has only existed for the brief period of about half a century.
Affirmative action has been one avenue through which America has worked to close this gap. By giving underrepresented students a chance at higher learning, schools also bestow the opportunity to break generational cycles of poverty and a long history of discrimination from education and job opportunities. From diverse and turbulent backgrounds, students from all rungs on the social ladder and all backgrounds can arrive on a college campus and, for once, walk on the same playing field.
Nevertheless, the current policy has a major flaw. While there is a pronounced relationship between race and poverty levels—27 percent of blacks and Hispanics live in poverty, compared to 10 percent of whites, according to a 2011 Pew study—admission criteria that place the heaviest emphasis on race are somewhat misguided. Affirmative action is meant to provide a life-saving opportunity to those who come from places deprived of opportunity, but these people don’t necessarily come from specific racial backgrounds. A minority student who comes from financial and social conditions similar to those of another candidate should not be given preference based on race. Rather, admissions officers should consider only socioeconomic background as criteria for admission. Using this guideline, race can be eliminated as a deciding factor, and the criticisms that affirmative action is “reverse racial discrimination” can somewhat subside. Comfortable minority students would thus not receive an unjust advantage over comparable non-minority students.
Imagine that an underprivileged white student from an inner city school is raised by a single mother who is uneducated. He overcomes a terrible childhood amid gang violence, and he manages to sustain similar academic credentials to those of a black candidate from a more affluent upbringing. Yet, under current criteria, the black candidate might have the edge solely because of his race. It’s difficult to argue that the well-off black student deserves the spot more than the disadvantaged white student who battled through poverty and poor living conditions his entire life.
The Supreme Court is set to convene on the Fisher case in the fall, and, with five justices tending to support affirmative action, it’s certainly possible that the procedure will soon terminate in public universities. While the nation has a long way to go in reaching complete racial and economic equality, it has made progress in part through affirmative action. To remove the policy absolutely is to ignore several decades of the policy’s success and many more decades of American history. If the Supreme Court wishes to deemphasize race, the best alternative is to have colleges consider socioeconomic factors.