Home / Beyond Affirmative Action: What’s the Real Issue?

Beyond Affirmative Action: What’s the Real Issue?

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This article is part two of a series in celebration of a new, dynamic voice in Black America: the NUBIANO Exchange. Brace yourself for the NUBIANO experience. 

  by Seke Ballard

At its core, affirmative action is, in fact, a discriminatory practice because it rewards and punishes people based on characteristics over which neither party has control, in this case, biological. If the reader accepts the past assertion as true, why and how has affirmative action remained in use? Toward answering this question, let’s analyze a number of other characteristics that are not controlled by the person, but nevertheless receive favorable attention by university admissions officers.

Legacy, for example, is a widespread, but somewhat covert practice at universities across the country whereby children of alumni, in the event that they are borderline accept/reject candidates, receive an advantage over the candidates who aren’t children of alumni. According to a study conducted at Stanford University, Harvard’s admit rates for legacy students in 2003 was 40% compared to the 11% acceptance rate for the broader student body. Further, legacy students at Harvard score, on average, 35 points less than their more qualified counterparts in the general student body. Such statistics aren’t restricted to Harvard as comparable figures exist for all of the most selective universities in the country for legacy candidates as well as candidates who are children of large donors.

This article doesn’t aim to suggest that because the benefits to children of alumni and large donors remain, so too should affirmative action. Further, to be clear, this article makes no attempt to reconcile its legality, but rather, to attract attention to some underlying cultural mechanisms that may help to explain its use. There is an interesting disparity between the fact that affirmative action has received such vigorous opposition while legacy and donor benefits, which are fundamentally the same processes, have been used in America since Harvard’s founding – being left largely (and legally) unquestioned for centuries. The implications that this disparity has for American culture does well to shed light on the “why and how” for affirmative action.

A secondary and perhaps stronger point is the seemingly individual-controlled and quantitative aspects of one’s candidacy such as grades and SAT scores. A study done by the University of California, among others, showed that grades and SAT scores are positively correlated with socioeconomic status. The results make intuitive sense; the parents of children from more affluent backgrounds put more financial resources and time in their children’s education and are generally themselves college educated.

This data begs the question: is anything really solely the result of the individual merit of the student? Are students of low socioeconomic status inherently less likely to have good grades or high SAT scores or is it more a function of it? Surely one’s socioeconomic status (which the individual does not control) plays a very substantial role in their future success, thus making the use of things that are dependent on it fundamentally comparable to affirmative action. Given this argument, no measure for excellence can escape discriminating against people based on uncontrollable characteristics.

And why should it? Inherent to the idea of individually measuring excellence is the need to stratify people. The only fair way to determine which forms of discrimination are acceptable, however, is to weigh the type of discrimination against societal values. In the case of race-based affirmative action, providing underrepresented minorities the opportunity to have a fairer chance at attaining the ‘American Dream’ should be thoughtfully measured against overarching American values: equality, freedom, etc.

However disheartening, in a world of limited resources, to equate two groups often requires that one group is taken from while the other is given to. Before dismissing that point, the reader should carefully consider the following: the day people cease to believe that attaining the American Dream is possible will be the same day America ceases to be what it is today.


Sykes, Marquita. "The Origins of Affirmative Action." National Organization for Women.

"Affirmative Action." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

"Affirmative Action and Diversity Project: A Web Page for Research." Department of English, UCSB.

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About Clayton Perry

  • Interesting. So, what’s going to replace AA? In other words, AA was to mitigate against the legacy. Does it stand to reason something will come along to mitigate against AA?

  • Aku

    Your article hinted at something that I have personally felt for quite a while. Afirmative action should be based on ecnomic factors and less on race.

  • Seke Ballard

    Alessandro Nicolo: My argument is not that AA was purposed in mitigating legacy; rather, I was drawing a parallel between the two. I argue that legacy is an institution that is fundamentally the same as AA, except that it benefits those who are much more likely to be wealthy and/or from a background of quality education. Accordingly, an institution that benefits the wealthy hasn’t been questioned for centuries. Hippocritically, there’s a public outcry when the same exact practices benefit the disenfranchised and poor among us. That’s a cultural issue that should be discussed.

    Aku: Though I would tend to agree with you, I’d have to state that there is something real and different about being black in the US. Many people shrug it off as something of the past, but such would give far too much credit to the maturity of the American populace. Indeed, there is still work to be done on both sides of the racial barrier. Accordingly, to focus on economics rather than race would ignore these challenges that we continue to face. I would suggest a mixture (perhaps we don’t disagree).

    Thanks all.

  • Aku

    Not too much. I went to a Magnet school for HS in an poor neighborhood, mostly made up of African Americans. I did notice it was quite a bit easier for the middle class African Americans that were in the program with me to get into top tier colleges, while many of the people from the neighborhood the school was went to second or third tier colleges (if they got in at all) for the most part.

    I guess what I mean is that there should be more emphasis on socio-economic background and less emphasis on race. I suspect our views are close.

  • Blair

    We might make affirmative action in college admissions more acceptable by limiting it to African Americans–the people most affected by racism–based on enconomic status. In other words, only lower-income African Americans would be eligible for affirmative action. Basing it entirely on economic status wouldn’t work, because lower income Asians and non-Hispanic white students outscore lower income African Americans and Hispanics.

    We need to limit whose eligible for affirmative action because demographics in make virtually everyone eligible. For example, my hometown, a city of 750,000, is more than 80 percent hispanic. Intermarriage between Anglos and Hispanics is common, yet the offspring of these marriages (think Cameron Diaz) are also eligible for affirmative actions. Once the children of the city’s small non-Hispanic white females, African Americans, and American Indians are counted, about 95 percent of the city’s residents are eligible for affirmative action. It’s benefits, of course, tend to go to middile and upper income students.