State of society calls for affirmative action

Aaron W. Hughey

The recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the cases of Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger have precipitated a lot of discussion concerning college admissions policies aimed at achieving a racially and ethnically diverse student population.

Whereas few argue that the goal is not honorable, considerably less consensus exists regarding the manner in which it should be achieved.

But a lot of people seem to be missing an important point in the debate over affirmative action. At its core, affirmative action is as much about socioeconomic status as it is about race or ethnicity. Any dialog dealing with “merit” must also take into account background and environment. Merit does not exist as a quality independent of its context.

Individuals who are raised in affluent families have tremendous advantages over those who are not as fortunate. This advantage manifests in a number of tangible ways, including greater access to both educational as well as economic opportunities.

Students who have never had to worry about where their next meal is coming from will always tend to perform at a higher level than those who have had to struggle just to acquire life’s basic amenities.

Similarly, individuals who have been exposed to computers at home since birth will always tend to exhibit a higher proficiency with technology than individuals who have only had access to computers through the public schools.

As most admissions counselors know, there is a strong correlation between family socioeconomic status and scores on tests such as the SAT and the ACT. Students from more affluent families consistently do better on these tests. Sadly, it is also a reality that minorities continue to be more heavily represented in the lower socioeconomic classes.

By continuing to overemphasize standardized test scores in their admissions decisions, colleges and universities are inadvertently perpetuating discrimination and racism.

Although we should continually strive to provide equality of opportunity for all of our citizens, it must be accepted that we will never be completely successful in “leveling the playing field.”

The reality is that as long as our society refuses to acknowledge and seriously address the underlying problems, we will always need affirmative action in one form or another.

Aaron W. Hughey is a professor and interim head of the department of counseling and student affairs.

The views expressed in this commentary do not reflect the views of the Herald, Western or its administration.