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Affirmative action doesn't necessarily promote equality

By BERLIN FANG | China Daily | Updated: 2023-07-22 10:04


The US Supreme Court's recent ruling against affirmative action in college admissions should be welcome. I strongly believe in racial equality and cultural diversity, but affirmative action is the wrong approach to achieve or sustain that. Although affirmative action was initiated by former US presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson to provide equal opportunity for all, it has been reduced to a vehicle to sustain cultural diversity at the cost of other principles including equality and fairness for all, which make the United States a great nation.

Affirmative action has evolved into a great irony in the US: to facilitate some social or ethnic groups' social mobility, other groups have to yield, stop or be simply run over. In college admissions, affirmative action practices have created reverse discrimination against other ethnic groups and blatant racism against Asian Americans.

Supporters of the policy often deny the existence of racial quotas when colleges use affirmative action in admissions, but given the limited seats available, members of some groups have to be pushed aside to allow others in. Elite colleges want us to believe it is not a zero-sum game, but it is. When race influences admission decisions, it creates an illusion of diversity at best. But diversity is about quality, not quantity. At its worst, such artificially created diversity would set one ethnic group against another. Such diversity loses its ability to enhance racial harmony. Instead, it breeds resentment and hostility.

Affirmative action is hitting Asian Americans especially hard. Many Asian-American families focus on providing higher education for their children as a way to achieve social mobility, but when students from such families have high test scores, they are painted by certain admission officials as "nerds" that do not have "leadership skills" and do not care about community services.

Getting a good grade, which in many cases reflects self-discipline and hard work, serves instead to define them as less capable of achieving anything else. To justify stricter criteria for Asian Americans, colleges often use the term "holistic admission" as a pretext, which implies Asians are less "holistic" as members of the human race. Nothing reinforces stereotypes more than affirmative action policies in this day and age.

Affirmative action is also misguided as it could favor a rich African-American doctor's child at the cost of a poor Asian-American kid. It could push back a kid from a struggling white family so that a Hispanic banker's kid could get ahead.

Supporters of affirmative action policy may have the good intention of remedying past wrongs such as slave trade and slavery. However, I do not see why one should ignore other groups that have also been victims of past wrongs. Why not give a helping hand to Japanese Americans whose grandfathers and grandmothers were thrown into "concentration camps" in the US? Why not extend a helping hand to Vietnamese Americans whose homes were razed and families killed? Why not give a helping hand to the descendants of Chinese railroad workers, and the descendants of those who were denied employment due to the Chinese Exclusion Act?

Instead, ethnic groups are cherry-picked, often keeping political bases and support in mind, not as a general principle of liberty and justice. This makes affirmative action the least American of all contemporary policies.

Proponents and supporters of affirmative action do not believe that children from every group can compete at the same level. They often worry that, if the US abolishes affirmative action, elite colleges and organizations may become more easily accessible to certain groups. This may not happen in the short term, because affirmative action has become crutches for some groups. But social dynamics will cause things to self-balance in the long run, creating true and organic diversity.

Unless we believe that certain ethnic groups are intellectually inferior, all groups should be allowed to compete academically in the US. Most American children can attend school where they live or go to public libraries to read books, and even get free and subsidized meals. Other than the external factors, social mobility also has to do with one's grit, hard work, motivation and other factors that are not distributed along racial or ethnic lines.

Affirmative action creates a mindset that by virtue of being born in a specific ethnic group, one is entitled to certain privileges. This type of thinking can weaken the competitiveness of the members of the ethnic groups such policies seek to help, and create barriers for other groups it suppresses while creating racial tensions. It's time the US changed this dated and counterproductive policy.

The author is a columnist based in Texas.

The views don't necessarily represent those of China Daily.

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