Affirmative action in education isn’t what it used to be

It is MLK Day. The great man himself once said — “the time is always right to do what is right”. On this day, it would be right to look at affirmative action as a policy in education and if we have been doing the right thing by those for whom it is devised.

Today is a day when we must reflect on how we see each other, and consequently, how we treat each other. If we see an entire ethnic group in a less than positive light, then we are likely to have an inherent bias towards them in all our dealings. Not everyone has the self-awareness to realize that they have a certain bias — negative or positive. We all consider ourselves to be fair in our dealings with others.

Affirmative action was seen as a policy prescription to level the field for those who have been historically disadvantaged. It was a government action to mitigate the consequences of bias that we all have towards those who we might actively or subconsciously view as less deserving. This was done in 1961 by the John F. Kennedy administration but a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. Let’s consider what happened in California recently as they voted on this matter a couple of months ago.

On the same day when it voted 64–34 in favor of the Biden-Harris ticket, deep blue California voted no to Prop.16. This proposition would have reinstated race-based diversity measures in university admissions, government contracting and hiring. Latinos are the largest ethnic group in California at 38% of the population along with Non-Hispanic Whites. All 14 counties that are Hispanic majority in California voted against Prop.16. All of them.

Hispanic proportion of students in the University of California system is 34 percent, up from 14 percent in 1996 when affirmative action in college admissions was banned. This demographic has nearly caught up without affirmative action and therefore sees it as unnecessary. Some in the Latino community see it as a stigma that would make their achievements look less deserving under a quota-based regime.

Then there is the Asian American population that makes up 14 percent of California’s population but overperforms with 34 percent of all UC system students. They voted against Prop.16 as well. They say that they had to fight racial bias as well and were also once economically and socially disadvantaged but have focused on progress in the face of adversity. Since they have managed to do so, they find no use for affirmative action either.

The African American population makes up 6 percent of California’s population. They may have been swayed a bit more in favor of affirmative action but a substantial proportion of younger Black voters are not convinced about affirmative action.

So we have to ask if there is a gap between the opinion of the elite who want to give the society equality and equity, and public opinion that doesn’t want equality and equity in the way it is being offered.

The political elite ask — How can we have diversity if we don’t push ethnic minorities into positions of advantage?

The ethnic minorities ask — Why do we need laws that will stigmatize our achievements and pit one minority against another?

So what is the right thing to do?

First, we must recognize that contrary to popular belief, we are NOT a meritocracy. A meritocracy is an idea which promotes a society where people succeed because of their effort and abilities instead of their background and origin. This idea ignores the role that good fortune and favorable circumstances have to play in our success. On the one hand it leads us to believe that those who are successful reached their respective pinnacles because of personal agency, but on the other hand it also follows that those who didn’t succeed are somehow inherently flawed or lazy.

Free public education was a way to bring about meritocracy. However, we didn’t ensure equal and consistent standard of education across all schools. Affluent neighborhoods have better schools and poor neighborhoods have lower quality education. A more equitable K-12 education may do more to prepare disadvantaged communities to compete on equal footing with the more privileged.

Second, we must accord more prestige to technical and trade schools. The disproportionate adulation that the university educated receive in our society leads to a distorted vision of future among the youth getting ready for the workforce. We need to teach entrepreneurship in trade schools instead of just preparing workers. Business ownership and proprietorship will build wealth, and the resulting affluence will make trade schools synonymous with entrepreneurship. Why should that be acknowledged just for tech startups? If we make trade schools tuition free, we will create more social equity. There is much to learn from Tennessee Promise, that makes college education free in 2-year colleges.

Minorities are not a monolith and one ethnic group out of many could have different needs in different states. Some minorities are no longer underrepresented and view affirmative action negatively. Therefore we have to re-evaluate how we can make secondary education more equitable and if affirmative action is the right vehicle to deliver that outcome.

Architect, Urban Planner, Advisor to companies and communities that are looking for each other.