4 Reasons why Race-Based Affirmative Action is a terrible policy

by Sunjay Muralitharan, Apr 3, 2021

Due to the failure of Prop 16 in California, race-based affirmative action has returned to the mainstream of political discourse. Proponents of this policy preach that it would bring about racial equity and help dismantle systemic racism in our nation. However, opponents of it, like myself, argue that its unprecedented unpopularity, ineffectiveness in bridging the racial wage gap, negative impact on minorities, and racism make it a terrible policy.

1. Unprecedented Unpopularity

It is an undeniable fact that race-based AA is a hugely unpopular policy. For the past 30 years, it has failed every time it was put on the ballot box in the US. In its most recent case, with California’s Prop 16 (which would have reinstated race-based AA), it was defeated by a margin of over 14%. Arizona’s ban on affirmative action, Prop 107, saw an even greater margin of about 19% in support for it. Nationally, a Pew Research survey found that nearly 3 out of every 4 Americans believe that race should not be a factor in college admissions.

The results of California’s Prop 16

The results of California’s Prop 16

Photo: California State Department

In general, it is not fair to base a policy's quality off of its popularity; after all policies like the abolition of slavery, desegregation, and legalizing gay marriage were once viewed negatively in the public’s eye. However, there is a key difference between race-based AA and the policies listed above regarding their popularity; race-based AA isn’t overwhelmingly supported by the minorities it is supposed to help. In the case of Prop 16, every one of California’s 14 Latino majority counties voted against it. On the flip side, white liberals are the greatest proponents of race-based AA. It's like if the majority of gay voters voted to keep gay marriage illegal while bigoted homophobes fought for the opposite, or if most slaves wanted to remain in slavery while the whites benefiting from their labor were doing all they could to free them; it just doesn’t add up. This odd factoid poses an important question to supporters of Race-based AA that I am unable to answer: why are you promoting a policy that the people you are trying to help despise?

”You might reconsider your position if the folks you are aiming to help seem very uninterested in the flavor of help that you are actually offering.” - Krystal Ball, Co-host of The Hill Rising, when discussing the failure of Prop 16 in CA

2. Ineffectiveness in bridging the racial wealth gap

One of the most important questions when it comes to evaluating any policy is how it plays out in practice, and it is not hard to evaluate this policy since it has been around for over 50 years. Raced-based AA does increase the representation of minorities in high-level institutions but is that the goal? Aren't proponents trying to create a more equitable nation by bridging socio-economic inequalities between whites and minorities instead of sprinkling colorful faces in high-level jobs and colleges? I believe they are.

Because of the analysis above, it's safe to assume that bridging the wealth gap between the median black/Latino family and median white family are direct motivators of race based AA. If we look at the past 50 years, we see that race-based AA has done little to nothing to bridge the wealth gap between disadvantaged minority & white families. In fact, the gap is bigger today than it was in 1963 (which is before segregation was ended by the civil rights act). Because of this, it is crystal clear that race based AA is ineffective when it comes to bridging the racial wealth gap.

The wage gap between median white, black & Hispanic families in America since the 1960s

The wage gap between median white, black & Hispanic families in America since the 1960s

Photo: Urban Institute

3. Negative Impact on Minorities

Believe it or not, race-based AA hurts minorities in various ways. For example, it is shown to increase minority fail rates. Before Prop 209 (which banned race-based AA) was implemented in California in 1996, UC San Diego saw that 15% of its black students & 17% of its native Indian students were at risk of failing (for whites this number was only 4%). The reason for this had nothing to do with the races of UC San Diego students, instead, it was a result of mismatch—students being placed in classes or colleges that they are not academically prepared for—that was caused by race-based AA.

After Prop 209 was passed, these numbers saw a dramatic reversal. American Indians & African Americans saw their failure risk rates tank to 6%. Similar reductions in minority fail rates were also seen in other state schools. This did occur at the expense of diversity in high-level institutions (like UCLA and UC Berkeley), but race-based AA opponents believe that giving up diversity for the success of minorities is a phenomenal trade-off.

In addition, race-based AA negatively impacts minority students’ mental health. This is because students are more likely to form friendships on campuses where other students have similar academic abilities, and race-based AA is known to place minorities in institutions where they are academically outmatched.

4. Racism

Is race-based AA racist? If you look at the assumptions it makes on minorities and how it actively discriminates against Asians, the answer is yes. This is because race-based AA sits on the racist assumption that specific races are unable to attend high-level institutions or jobs, while others are.

In addition, race-based AA is a blatantly discriminatory policy against Asians. This can be seen in Yale, as the Department of Justice found that they actively discriminate against Asian students in their admissions process. Supporters claim, correctly, that race will be one of several other factors in job & university admissions if race based AA is implemented. However, the fact that more factors are being discussed than the color of our skin does not change the fact that this policy is inherently racist.

The main question regarding race-based AA’s ethics isn’t whether or not it is racist, it is whether or not the racism it is promoting is justified. This question has been heavily debated by people from all sides of the political spectrum. Supporters justify their stance by claiming that they are promoting equity in colleges and the workplace. In other words, they believe that you must fight fire with fire, and the fire, in this case, is racism. Critics believe that all types of racial discrimination are immoral, a stance that most Americans seem to agree as seen in an NPR poll found that over 75% of Americans see racial discrimination as a “big problem.”

"Going forward, I’d like to warn liberal politicians in California and nationwide: focus your efforts on devising effective measures to improve K-12 education for Black and Hispanic children, instead of introducing racially divisive and discriminatory laws time and again.” - Yukong Zhao, Asian American Coalition for Education President discussing Prop 16

In conclusion, race based AA is a terrible policy due to its unprecedented unpopularity, ineffectiveness in bridging the racial wage gap, negative impact on minorities, and racism.



See How Your County Voted on Each California Proposition | KQED

Poll: Majority Of Americans Say Racial Discrimination Is A 'Big Problem' : NPR