Home » Phillipian Articles about diversity at Andover » Affirmative Action: An Obstacle to Meritocracy

Affirmative Action: An Obstacle to Meritocracy


Diversity is overrated.

I am dangerously oversimplifying what I have to say, but with the current level of unquestioning political awareness, bold and forthright statements are necessary. Let me explain myself. I define diversity as racial variation, statistically measured and formally pursued. When I say overrated, I assert that there are far more important characteristics in a student and community member that we, and many American colleges, currently sacrifice.

This article serves to present a case against race-based affirmative action. My argument can be summarized in this question: What serves a college better, the most racially diverse student body, or the most academically talented, intellectually passionate applicants?

My first contention is a moral one: race-based affirmative action directly contradicts the principles of a meritocracy. As PA students we are constantly told that our hard work will be rewarded, that our worth is measured by our actions and choices, and that no matter how rich we are or where we come from, we all compete on an equal playing field.

The heart of race-based affirmative action is the equalizing of merit and race, the idea that a more exotic or uncommon racial background can equal or even outweigh academic or extracurricular achievements. Race should not even be compared to achievement, let alone override it. Affirmative action rewards applicants for something their parents endowed them with, something they at no point earned. It is therefore morally equivalent to the discriminatory admissions processes that used to favor white applicants over black, or the immigration policies that favored Europeans over Asians. Applicants should no more be rewarded for being African-American than they should be rewarded for having blue eyes or being exactly 5’ 4”.

The claim that affirmative action makes up for the mistakes of the past –slavery, Jim Crow, the lack of civil rights in America—does not address the current lack of meritocracy, this new form of nativism. If we do not punish someone three generations after the crime, why should we compensate them for crimes perpetrated against their ancestors?

This oft-cited argument is simplistic but in my opinion true: why combat racial discrimination with racial favoritism? Why heighten racial tensions by making it clear to competitive, stressed and frustrated Senior classes around America that the color of your transcript may matter more than its content? We are counterproductive, not colorblind.

The argument that affirmative action can counteract modern society’s discrimination also holds little water. For one thing, prep school and college applicants are judged primarily by their academic record, which can be most greatly negatively impacted by a low quality school system. Difficulties like poverty or a bad middle school should and are rightfully recognized. But they become apparent on the financial aid application, through the additional information section or in the student’s essays. They cannot be assumed from a student’s racial make-up.

Of course a student from a low-income urban environment faces fewer opportunities and more difficulties than a student from a high-income suburban bubble, but why should statistical correlations persuade us to assume that all applicants of a certain race faced the former scenario? Why can’t we judge each application case by case, and see that it is personal history, not ancestral home, that matters?

When it comes to college admissions from Andover, the “they-had-it-harder” argument is especially tenuous. Would affirmative action’s proponents like to claim that teachers at PA grade in a racist manner? That rigor of course selection is somehow race-related? Transcripts are the most important component of a college application, and they do not reflect race; why should the admissions decision?

Having established that implementing race-based affirmative action means tossing meritocracy out the window, we now ask ourselves, what for? The most popular argument for affirmative action is a utilitarian one; the policy’s proponents are not against meritocracy, they simply don’t feel that it’s as important as the benefits racial diversity can bring to the educational experience. This is the crux of the discussion. Which of these two positives brings the most good: racial diversity or a purely merit-based admissions system?

Let’s question for a moment the dogma of political correctness on this campus, which is that racial diversity, in any form, at any price, should be pursued.

Assume that a college exists at a happy intersection of self-interest and selflessness, desiring both to cultivate successful, donating alumni as well as well-rounded, intelligent students. What would be more helpful: spending time with kids from a variety of racial backgrounds, or spending time with kids with a variety of interests and passions? What’s more beneficial to the college and the other students, a student of minority status, or a student who is the most qualified to be there?

Proponents of affirmative action like to claim that classroom discussions are enhanced by multiple viewpoints, and that outside of the classroom kids can learn from fellow students of different origins. Let’s be honest with ourselves. Classroom discussions are enhanced by motivated and capable students, no matter what racial makeup they may have.

And as for out-of-classroom socialization, what do we honestly prefer: the superficial diversity of skin pigmentation, or diversity of thought, diversity of viewpoint? Who really contributes more, a tri-racial student of majority opinions who feels no need to speak about them, or a white applicant who also happens to be an outraged libertarian with a head full of controversial opinions?

It sounds nice on paper: diverse applicants teach each other tolerance, improve each other’s education. But these logical links falls apart when viewed from the on-the-ground, day-to-day, student’s perspective. We go to a relatively racially diverse school, but what do you think has actually posed a greater challenge to your way of thinking? Superficial, enforced and constant celebration of racial diversity, or colorblind cultivation of intellectual curiosity?

I’m not saying that racial diversity and intellectual ability are in any way in opposition; they are simply not linked. And when it comes to quality of education, the latter is the prerequisite. There can be no education without it, nor an admissions system that should not be based upon it. We should admit the most qualified kids. If they’re racially diverse, that’s great. If they’re not, there’s clearly a fundamental flaw in the elementary and middle school systems of America. Intelligence and talent are naturally distributed equally across all races—as long as we admit fairly, diversity will come. If the problem lies in complex socio-economic factors that trap many African-American or Latino students in underperforming urban middle schools, let’s not try to fake a simple answer that cheats us all.

It’s time for a colorblind admissions system.


By Tiffany Li
Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

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