Affirmative Action - The Accepted Discrimination

Published by

Donovan Zagorin


September 6, 2023

Inquiry-driven, this article reflects personal views, aiming to enrich problem-related discourse.

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Affirmative action (AA) is a policy directed towards providing educational/working opportunities to those a part of demographics regarded as disadvantaged or underrepresented. The government has affirmative action policies  instituted in the 1960s-1970s civil rights era. These policies were centered around anti-discrimination, meaning employers could not deny employment based on race, gender, or other arbitrary characteristics.“The purpose of affirmative action is to ensure equal employment opportunities for applicants and employees. It is based on the premise that, absent discrimination, over time a contractor’s workforce generally will reflect the demographics of the qualified available workforce in the relevant job market.”

The current discourse on AA essentially surrounds that which exists in college admissions. This form of AA is the same in attempting to provide marginalized groups with what they deem an “equal opportunity,” but they do so by exhibiting positive discrimination. Positive discrimination favors individuals of a marginalized group compared to anti-discrimination which merely puts everyone on the same playing field. Proponents of AA justify positive discrimination on the grounds that it is necessary for there to be an equal playing field, as certain demographics start at a disadvantage. However, they fail to acknowledge that in order to positively discriminate in favor of one group, you must negatively discriminate against other groups. Affirmative action remains one of the very few, socially accepted forms of discrimination, and I question why that is.  

Do White Women Really Benefit the Most from Affirmative Action?

When discussing the legitimacy of AA in college admissions, many are quick to argue that engaging in any form of discrimination, positive or not, is unjustified. The argument is not only that Black applicants gain an “unfair advantage” in the admission process, but White and Asian applicants are inherently disadvantaged because of it. As a response, many will say white women are the group most favored by AA, so racial minorities are not even the biggest beneficiary. The claim that white women have significantly benefited from AA is valid; however, the point in context is severely disingenuous—the conversation at hand concerns AA regarding positive discrimination, not anti-discrimination.The argument about white women has to do with the policy instituted in the civil rights era, as white women have become much more prominent members of the workforce ever since. So white women have benefited from the fact that they were no longer allowed to be discriminated against, not because they were favored for being a white woman. Just as all black people have gained much more employment opportunities since then, we understand it is not because employers gave them "extra points" on their applications; they just stopped taking points away. Overall, it has nothing to do with the current conversation on whether universities should positively discriminate in favor of racial minorities.

Why Not Eliminate Legacy Admissions?

Many assert the legacy advantage as “affirmative action for white people.” People question why SCOTUS  would eliminate AA and not the legacy advantage. They will claim that AA is grounded in reasonable intentions while legacy preference is merely a ploy to keep the “white and wealthy” within these institutions. The argument universities have for legacy preference is fair and truthful. They say that legacies are much more likely to donate to the school and be involved. They also believe that as their student bodies continue to become more diverse, the legacy preference will advantage more than just white people. But with this being said, how does legacy preference match AA? In terms of the advantage one gets, both are substantial. For AA, the data suggests that “Overall, Harvard’s policies roughly quadrupled the likelihood that an African American applicant would be accepted relative to a white student with similar academic qualifications, while multiplying the likelihood of admissions 2.4 times for Hispanics.” Also, “African Americans applying to Harvard being accepted at a rate double that of Hispanics — and 12 times greater than Asian Americans — at the fifth decile.” On the other hand, there is data to say “Applying to college as a legacy is like having a superpower. It has been estimated to double or quadruple one’s chances of getting into a highly selective school, and has been found to be roughly equivalent to a 160-point boost on the SAT.” So empirically, the advantage of being a legacy and the advantage of AA fair up well with one another.

The issue is this: egacy preference cannot be deemed as AA for white people, as most white people applying to prestigious universities are not legacies. Many will misunderstand this point at first glance, as the majority of legacies are white. The issue is not with what race legacies tend to be, but rather, how many people of that race tend to be legacies. And in reality, when looking at a school known for legacy advantage like Harvard, 70% of legacy admits are white, which may seem like a lot but is consistent with national population data. One can now see the unfair characterization legacy admissions face; whether one agrees with their existence or not, it is not analogous to AA. Affirmative action has specific racial demographics that it targets to benefit for the sole reason of them being a part of said demographic; legacy advantage is literally and functionally “colorblind.” This perfectly explains why SCOUTS did not eliminate the legacy admissions along with AA. AA was stopped  on the basis of violating the Equal Protection Clause (EPC) of the 14th Amendment, considering it explicitly advantages people of certain groups and disadvantages people of other groups. Despite the idea behind legacies being “white and rich,” the fact of the matter is that a “legacy”makes no explicit reference to a member of a particular demographic which the EPC would concern itself with.

The Inconsistent Logic Behind Affirmative Action  

As noted before, AA has specific goals; however, they become more varied in the context of college admissions. Ensuring that underrepresented/oppressed groups get a fair shot is relevant. But it’s also pervasive for colleges to want “diversity.” They reinforce that diverse student bodies will help foster a better academic and social environment that benefits everyone. This conversation gets to be slightly complicated because the reasons they claim for using AA happen to be contradicted by other practices/policies they have. To start, the idea of helping a group that faced systemic bias is fair, but in that case, why put Asian applicants at such a large disadvantage? Asian Americans faced some of the most severe discrimination of the 20th century when the government placed them in Internment camps. This being true, along with other racial prejudice that extends to today, people will still argue that Asian Americans do not “need the help” of AA. Even with it being true, they will go a step further and disadvantage them through it. Yet we’re supposed to believe there is a goal of atoning for discrimination?

And in the case of diversity, the practices fail to be consistent again. Not all Asians are the same, there are various nationalities and ethnic groups in Asia, yet they are seemingly lumped together in terms of AA. This doesn’t seem to make sense because not all Asians have the same representation in admissions and thus can bring more cultural diversity. The idea of diversity also falls off when inspecting the acceptance of out-of-state applicants. UNC, a university part of the recent Supreme Court case, is a perfect example. They accepted 43% of in-state applicants and only 8% of out-of-state applicants. A college’s supposed goal is to maintain a diverse student population. Why, then, do they favor in-state applicants when the culture is much more likely homogeneous, even among the various racial groups within the state? The lack of consistency surrounding the approach to diversity highlights an issue the Supreme Court saw with the “diversity argument” as its objective is not sufficiently measurable, and the steps taken towards it are poorly justified.


With all this being said, the crux of the issue still lies in the premise that racism can and should be a response to racism. I’m not here to discuss whether or not there is a current systemic bias that needs to be atoned for, but rather if this type of affirmative action would be an appropriate response regardless. As policies like AA continue to be in play, the game will never cease to be about race. I understand that it’s hard to ask one side to be “colorblind” when they perceive themselves as negatively impacted by that color. The only response I can give is that we must start somewhere. Admissions is a zero-sum game; helping minorities seems like a commendable sentiment, but not when it comes at the cost of disadvantaging others for their race. Race should be treated like any other arbitrary, phenotypic characteristic - it should be no more ridiculous to look at someone's eye color when gauging their qualification than it is to look at their skin color. It is pure collectivism to partially evaluate a young individual looking to go to college by seeing the box they checked for race. Their identity is so much more than that of the race they belong to. This is not to say their race cannot be relevant in their life in terms of the experiences they have had, but that should be the focus if it is the case. As the Supreme Court decision allows for, colleges can and should enable students to explain if and why their race is relevant when defining their identity. From that, the colleges can assess if it is the type of person deserving admission, as they understand who that person is rather than the group association they have.

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Donovan Zagorin

Former Director, Policy & 2022 Senior Fellow

Donovan Zagorin is a senior fellow and the Director of Policy at YIP. He is currently a high school student in California who looks to further the goal of improving discourse in politics, especially among youth. He has interests in politics, philosophy, and economics, all of which he hopes to pursue through college and the rest of his foreseeable future.

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