A few days back, I attended Oxford Union’s Thursday Night Formal Debate for the first time. I should have gotten to it much sooner, really, but some how, it is on my eighty-seventh trip to Oxford that I finally managed to do it. I am glad that I did. It was a brilliant sight to watch. But what really seduced me to leave my heated flat and walk into the brisk January evening, was more than the Union’s reputation or my innate love for the fascinating activity that is debate. What had attracted me especially, was the topic for that night: if positive discrimination is the best solution to an unequal society.
Affirmative Action is an extremely consequential but also exceedingly tricky policy in the U.S. It is an unavoidable point of contention in all discussions about the higher education system, and its reasoning as well as symbolism concern the core of America’s history and identity. It is sensitive, yet the country cannot shove it into a closet. This makes it a uniquely challenging problem. So we have an interesting situation at hand, and I sat down in the debate room with a feeling that is almost amusement. I genuinely anticipated the show; I wanted to see how some of my brightest generational peers would try to tackle this, hypothetically, at least.
Truthfully, I began with an ambivalent position, but if hard-pressed, I would say I leaned towards opposing the motion. By the time I walked out, however, I stood firmly in opposition. In fairness, the proposition and the opposition both presented cogent as well as flawed arguments, but their words actually had little bearing on my position. What they did do, was to call on me to mobilize my own thoughts on the issue, which had been lurking in the subconsciousness for some time. As I processed and evaluated what was being said on the floor, I had already uncovered my own position.
Here is my argument.
Positive discrimination is certainly not the best solution to an unequal society. When we take on a motion such as this, we have to first of all recognize that the issue at stake is not the existence of inequality in the first place, or whether humanity and decency demand us to address inequality. Those, if I may, are moot points. The issue at stake is if we are to do this, how best to do it? A positively discriminatory policy, such as the Affirmative Action, contains three fatal flaws that not only prevent it from being a best solution to an unequal society, but may also render it a harmful one. Essentially, it works only for a nominal equality, and in the process, distracts society’s attention away from the root of the problem and allows the state to abdicate crucial responsibilities. Secondly, positive discrimination would in fact perpetuate conditions of inequality by reinforcing labels of minority. Third of all, positive discrimination eats away at society’s belief in equality and fairness by undermining the established merit system.
Affirmative Action creates a facade of equality, a nominal equality, and in that process, diverts desperately needed attention and resources away from the real problem. At the debate on Thursday, and during my college career in the U.S., the reality that minorities make up small portions of the most prestigious institutions is repeatedly brought up. It was cited by the proposition that apparently a graduate of the Eaton College’s chance to get into Oxford or Cambridge is “a thousand times higher than that of a student from state school”. Hyperbole or not, it is understandable. If we were to contrast the university prospects of those from Andover and Lawrenceville with students from an inner city high school in Philadelphia, the disparity will be daunting too. But why? There can be two extreme possibilities: a) all institutions have been systematically and thoroughly discriminating against minority students negatively, and despite a state school kid having similar credentials as a Eaton kid, the latter was always preferred over the former; or b) minority students’ performances are wholly inferior to that of their private school counterparts. The reality evidently sits in between (and given the culture in America today, it is more likely that the second explanation weighs much heavier), but Affirmative Action answers only to the first possibility. If matters were as simple as broad strokes of malicious discrimination, Affirmative Action or even a stronger policy along this line of thinking, could be of help. But that is not the case here. In my years at Berkeley, I had many minority peers who demonstrated exceptional talents, but also many who clearly performed at a level below Berkeley’s rigorous standards. I was not displeased over the fact that my university took the steps to help those in less than ideal positions. But I was worried that admitting them into Berkeley was the last act of help. A statement has been made, a quota filled, a statistical equality achieved. But has real equality been achieved? No. What was the truly alarming situation here? That minority students, who tend to concentrate in poorer communities, received systematically inferior education prior to university, resulting in their inability to perform better or aspire higher. I mean, some got lucky, and they got into Berkeley, Harvard, Cornell, or Ann-Arbor under Affirmative Action, but what about the rest? To a large extent, disproportionate university placement is a sign of anterior inequalities. It is not the end in itself. We must focus on improving neighborhood gentrification, overall economic opportunities, incentives to attract good public school teachers, and community safety. That, is where the inequality truly lies. If we want to give these kids a real shot, we start earlier. We give them better books, wiser mentors, stabler families, and faith in justice and virtue. The rest, they will manage fine, even without an Affirmative Action policy to hustle them across thresholds they are not yet prepared for.
Secondly, Affirmative Action in fact strengthens the foundation for inequality, which is filled with inferior categories and accompanying prejudices. A genuinely beneficial education does not equal an acceptance letter in March. Affirming a student’s personal worth, educating her about independence and responsibility, encouraging her to freely explore the world, are what matters. Imagine the shackles binding a young adult who bears the label of an Affirmative Action student. It is not simply paranoia or lack of self-confidence, because Affirmative Action is a formal policy that creates such a category within the community, and needless to say, reinforces the centuries-old categories of race and gender. Is this truly a tool for unity and convergence, or distance and alienation? Without a sufficient support system – workshops, tutors, extra office hours – to help these students catch up in a rigorous and competitive environment, they fall further behind, lose their sense of belonging, and contribute to others’ perceptions of them as incapable free riders. Academic ability is not the only factor at play. In a recent blog piece introduced by the New York Times, a vietnamese Harvard graduate describes struggles experienced at her alma mater, where as an immigrant from “the ghetto”, she felt out of place with Harvard’s upper-middle class environment, leading her eventually to severe anxiety and depression.
My last point is a relatively tentative one, but I’ve been toying with the idea and think I might as well put it out there. The claim that positive discrimination benefits equality is a tricky one. It is supported by a premise that past wrongs should be and can be remedied in the present, by giving preferential treatment to present members of a group discriminated in the past. Yet, I would suppose that the reason past discriminations are deemed illegal and immoral, is because that they were limitations and infringements levied against others arbitrarily (such as for their race and gender), without just cause. But, without playing the devil’s advocate, might I ask the difference between the black people who were arbitrarily born into dark skins decades ago and the white people today who are arbitrarily born into fair skins? If we are to say that when ancestors die, descendants bear the debt, what is the time limit on that? Legally? Morally? It is an enormous question, both in its size and in its complexity. Are we certain that we have already reached a logically, morally, and legally sound conclusion? Can this become a disincentive for candidates who do not qualify for Affirmative Action policy? Can this cast shadows of doubt in the minds and hearts of people, Whites and Blacks, Hispanics and Asians, darkening their notions of fairness, independence, and deservingness?
I am joining the others who are searching for better answers.
(Featured Image: Victoria & Albert Museum, London, United Kingdom in Summer 2015)