In Staunch Defense of Affirmative Action

By Bryan Paz

“Until we get equality in education, we won’t have an equal society.” The First Latina Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor could not speak more powerful and truer words. Born in the Bronx as the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants, Sotomayor’s story is immeasurably amazing. She is an inspiration to everyone, particularly Latinas across the country. Her story is a wonderful reminder that you can reach your dreams if you work hard. But part of her success has come because of smart institutional policy. She has frequently noted that affirmative action helped her get accepted into Princeton and Yale Law School.

The United States should provide the same opportunities for everyone. We will have a truly equal society when everyone has the same opportunities. Equality won’t be realized until everyone can go to college regardless of their family’s financial situation and can get a job regardless of an individual trait such as race or national origin. Governments and institutions should help create those opportunities for all.  

Think of our country like a racetrack. White America has been at the front of the race since the very beginning. Communities of color have been trying their best just to get into the race and once they did, they have been working hard just to catch up. For the foreseeable future, most whites and people of color will not be equal as long as people of color are deprived of the same economic and educational opportunities affluent whites enjoy.

Right now, your zip code, socio-economic status, and race all impact your ability to have the same opportunities such as attending college.

Among many things, affirmative action is one of the few tools that help people of color get admitted to colleges and universities. Why does it exist? Because historically and currently people of color have been deprived of enjoying this critical economic opportunity.

American colleges are predominantly white institutions that don’t reflect the dynamic diversity of our country and rarely helps communities of color get ahead. This is due for a variety reasons. First, we still don’t even have educational equity in the K-12 public school system. Although the Supreme Court ruled against separate but equal schools, many kids of color are forced to undergo schools of unequal quality. Many communities of color suffer from broken public school systems that are underfunded and falling apart. Many students of color may have to deal with broken homes and families, violent and tumultuous communities, and tough financial situations. This has led to high levels of high school drop out rates among students of color. In 2013, 12% of Hispanic students dropped out compared to 5% of white students. In many instances, the differences are greater when you look at particular regions rather than the national average.

For many students of color, their performance in the classroom suffers and they might not get the GPAs required to get into colleges or at least the colleges of their dreams. Not to mention, the SATs and other tests required getting into most colleges cost money to take. And if these students are already having a hard time passing tests for school, it will be difficult for them to do well on the SATs.

An affluent white student in Connecticut will likely have an easier time doing well on the SAT than a poor black student in Michigan. Additionally, affluent families can pay for SAT tutoring programs that helps a student’s likeliness of getting high scores while a student of color could barely afford to take the test itself. After all of that, if a student of color manages to get a good GPA and SAT score, the high cost of college bars many from attending.

More whites have a college diploma and thus enjoy more economic opportunities and higher salaries. In 2012, 69% of young adults with a bachelor’s degree were white, 9% were Hispanic, and 9% were black, and 11% were Asian. In the same year, the median income for whites was $57,009, for blacks it was $33,321 and for Hispanics it was $39,005.

Compared to a few decades ago, more and more people of color are attending colleges and universities. In fact, the class of 2012 saw a higher rate of Hispanic high school students enrolling in colleges than white high school students by two points. These improvements are due to a variety of reasons. More communities of color are being empowered and helped by smart school boards, political leaders, strong and loving parents, and more widely available opportunities to succeed in school and do well on the SAT. But affirmative action has undoubtedly been a part of the reason. Many colleges actively recruit students of color in attempt to diversify their campuses and improve their overall rankings.

I’m a rising junior at American University in Washington, D.C. My parents emigrated from Latin America and didn’t go to college. As a first-generation Latino student, I’m immensely privileged and thankful for attending American University. But I didn’t get here by accident. It didn’t just randomly happen. It took a concerted effort my university administrators to accept me and other Latino students. Folks who ran the university realized that they wanted to diversify campus. American University has an affirmative action hiring and admission policy. Thanks to the intentional efforts, as of Fall 2014, there are 753 Hispanic-identified students attending my university.

So next time someone whines that affirmative action was an ideal practice “back then but not anymore” remind them that the inequalities people of color suffer from are still very much happening. It may not be as blunt as when white men physically barred blacks from entering a college, but it’s still a gloomy picture. People of color are still trying to get by with poverty wages, make significantly less money than whites, and aren’t even close to attending college at similar rates as whites. Affirmative action is not reverse racism; it is an imperative tool used to create an even playing field to help communities of color reach the American Dream.