When diversity hurts minorities — the downsides of affirmative action

October 29, 2019 — by Jonathan Li

The now-famous Harvard admissions lawsuit, originally filed in 2014, brought various college admissions processes under heavy scrutiny when conservative activist Edward Blum accused Harvard University of holding Asian Americans to a higher standard than other ethnicities in order to promote racial diversity on campus. While Harvard profusely denied such accusations and judge Allison Burroughs recently ruled in favor of Harvard, I hope this decision is overturned on appeal; the trumpeted values of diversity don’t balance out against the harms caused by affirmative action. 

The act of favoring a racial minorities in admissions is hardly new. Colleges have adopted affirmative action policies as far back as 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was first passed, to abide by federal law. Although racism and the educational attainment gaps still exist, they’ve noticeably lessened in the 21st century. Instead of rewarding good work ethic, race-based affirmative action favors racial minorities (mostly African Americans and Hispanics) who perform worse on average in tests and other measures.

Blum noted that, if Harvard valued academics as its primary admission factor, more than 40 percent of Harvard’s student body would be Asian American as opposed to its current 20 percent while all other groups would decrease. However, if Harvard prioritized demographics as its primary admission factor, its student body would be nearly identical to its current demographics.

The ideal world that we should strive for is one that weighs individuals by merit rather than color or social standing — a nation where being born a certain race should be neither disadvantageous or beneficial. With the current affirmative action policies in place, being born Asian American places an individual at a disadvantage in the college admissions process at some competitive schools. 

Pursuing a racially diverse community as the primary objective in admissions is ethically and academically detrimental. Global primary and secondary education system performance has shown that more rigorous courses and a multi-talented population can benefit and serve the individual better than a racially balanced community. For example, there are plenty of ethnically homogenous countries that perform better than America’s primary and secondary education system, some of which include Japan and China. These countries rely upon their rigorous courses to improve student performance rather than racial diversity alone.

This trend is present locally as well.

In California, it’s not racially diverse schools that perform the best, but rather, the best funded and the most rigorous. Nearly 20 percent of California’s top schools are located in the Silicon Valley, with Monta Vista at 13th, Lynbrook at 14th, Gunn at 21st and Saratoga at 24th. These schools are heavily Asian American.

With how well these schools are performing, there’s no reason to incorporate a more racially diverse community to improve academic performance, especially since both Monta Vista and Lynbrook have a less diverse student population than Saratoga’s, yet rank 10 places higher.

By weighting racial minorities who perform significantly worse on average, work ethic, which should be rewarded and encouraged, is suppressed. Asian American students are often either no longer motivated enough to perform in school, or unhealthily stressed as they force themselves to make up for the deficit at which they’re valued during the application process. There is no benefit to creating a diverse community at the detriment of other, more qualified individuals. It’s simply unproductive. 

Maintaining a diverse community often leads to less qualified individuals earning a position over a more qualified individual simply because they’re part of a minority. This not only benefits neither the school nor the individual, but is also completely contradictory to the ideals of the Civil Rights Movement, which, ironically, is often used to defend the action of weighing individuals by race. 

Creating an absolutely racially balanced community is impossible; advocating for such a community leads to new acts of unfairness. Colleges, in their attempt to create more racially diverse campuses, have only succeeded in pulling us further from the ideal world without color.

So while people advocate for more racially diverse schools and communities, decisions like the Harvard one show we’re  building a country where color does matter.

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At UC Berkeley, PhD student Abrar Abidi and research assistant Yvonne Hao have embarked on a goal of creating hand sanitizer for the Bay Area's most vulnerable populations, including the homeless and the incarcerated. Their hand sanitizer includes glycerol mixed with other products, in accordance with a formula from the World Health Organization. So far, they are producing 120 hundreds of gallons of sanitizer each week. Photo courtesy of Roxanne Makasdjian with UC Berkeley.

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