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Affirmative Action: An Alternative Solution

Published: Monday, September 22, 2003

Updated: Tuesday, September 7, 2010 09:09

As was illustrated by the recent controversy at the University of Michigan, the issue of affirmative action continues to spark heated debate within the political community. There, advocates and opponents of the government-sponsored program butted heads once more, and the result was a narrow victory for the former. And it is no wonder that it was narrow, for both sides of the debate boast powerful and persuasive arguments. Proponents of affirmative action point to the endemic poverty of America's minority populations, and claim that college admissions based on test scores alone will result in few of these students being admitted to elite colleges, thereby perpetuating the cycle of poverty from one generation to the next. Opponents of the program criticize the means employed by universities, claiming that it is unfair to reward points to certain candidates simply because of the color of their skin. In essence, the debate over affirmative action is a return to an age-old question that has been plaguing mankind for centuries - that is, Does the end justify the means? It is clear that ethnic minorities are significantly under represented at selective institutions, and that something must be done to change this. However, it also holds true that to give an advantage to one student over another simply on the basis of race undermines the very nature of equality. When examined from this perspective, it appears that this controversy will never be decided to everyone's satisfaction. But what if there were another way? A solution that neither abolishes nor safeguards affirmative action, but rather changes it altogether? In fact, there is such a way, a third road that is increasingly being seen as a viable alternative - class-based affirmative action. Consider this. Public education in America is funded at the local level; therefore, poor communities cannot channel nearly as much money into their primary and secondary schools as wealthy communities can. This means that schools in affluent areas can afford more textbooks and supplies, higher-quality teachers, and so forth. In addition to this, conditions in the home greatly influence a student's ability to perform - poor students are far more likely to live with only one parent; plus, they must also cope with the troubles which so often appear in impoverished households, such as alcoholism, drug abuse, and domestic violence. In short, students living in the poorest communities receive an education of a quality that does not even remotely approach that of students in the wealthiest communities. Hence, when applying to college, students in poor communities are at a disadvantage. This problem is particularly evident within the minority population, which is greatly under represented in elite colleges precisely because minorities in America are disproportionately poor. Advocates of affirmative action believed that the program, by giving minorities an advantage, would provide greater numbers of these people with a quality education, thereby putting a stop to the seemingly-endless cycle of poverty that has plagued their communities. However, though affirmative action has been at work for over a quarter-century, urban decay continues at an alarming rate. Has affirmative action failed? No - its creators merely failed to recognize that, by working upon the basis of race alone, affirmative action has bypassed those very people it was designed to help.

The reason is this: by instituting an affirmative action program based on race rather than socioeconomic level, universities have established a system that is easily exploited. Who are the ones that benefit? Upper- and middle-class minority students, who have all the advantages of wealth, yet still are given a leg up simply because of their race. These wealthy minority students, when taken in comparison to their impoverished counterparts, will win out every time in the competition for the elite universities. The result is a split within the minority population - on the one hand, you have a privileged elite rising ever higher into the social ranks, and on the other, the vast majority - denied access to quality schools - slipping further and further into abject poverty. Of course, where there are winners, there are always losers - and in this situation, the losers are poor white students. They face all the educational difficulties inherent in poverty, yet receive no assistance because of the color of their skin. As Martin Luther King stated in 1964, "It is a simple matter of justice that America, in dealing creatively with the task of raising the Negro from backwardness, should also be rescuing a large stratum of the forgotten white poor."1 And yet, amongst all the finger-pointing and rhetoric, they have indeed been forgotten. The solution to the affirmative action problem will only be found when we come to the realization that it is not an issue of race, but rather an issue of class. America's elite universities are not racist - their eagerness to comply with the directives of affirmative action clearly demonstrates this fact - but they are most certainly elitist. "The cost of attending private and public universities has increased over the past two decades at double the rate of inflation. Over the past 10 years, the cost of attending a public university has increased by 79 percent, while over the same period the median family income has increased by only 38 percent."2 Education is the primary means of upward social mobility in America, and the fact that its costs have skyrocketed to such unprecedented levels means that only a select few can afford such a luxury. And in fact, while 74 percent of students at the 146 most selective universities in America are from the top quarter of the socioeconomic spectrum, only 3 percent are from the bottom quarter, and only 10 percent came from the entire bottom half of the socioeconomic scale.3 A select few, indeed. And thus, while it is true that minorities are greatly under represented in elite colleges, it is evident that America's poor, taken as a group, have been left out to an even greater extent. However, by instituting a program of socioeconomic affirmative action, we will be aiding great numbers of poor minorities (whose poverty, not race, puts them at a disadvantage), and at the same time we shall extend this aid to the hordes of poor white people who have been neglected, as well. Unless action is taken and affirmative action programs are altered to work on the basis of socioeconomic level, America's poor - black, white, and Latino alike - will continue to be denied the means of upward mobility. It is time for "equality of opportunity" to be truly provided for all Americans - it is time for the ivory tower to be torn down.

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