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The case against race-based affirmative action

Poverty and education

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On October 10, the Supreme Court will again reconsider the necessity and constitutionality of race-based affirmative action when it hears arguments in the case of Abigail, Fisher, a white woman who was rejected by the University of Texas and blames her rejection on the school’s partially race-based admissions process.

Opponents of such policies argue that race-neutral alternatives have been just as successful — if not more so — at fostering diversity on college campus across the nation. A few prominent supporters, like the University of California and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, argue that a switch from race-based polices to race-neutral ones would be detrimental to the racial diversity of America’s universities.

From NBC Latino:

“A new report out Wednesday offers a big reason for their optimism: evidence from at least some of the nine states that don’t use affirmative action that leading public universities can bring meaningful diversity to their campuses through race-neutral means.

That conclusion is vigorously disputed by supporters of race-based affirmative action, including universities in states like California which cannot under state law factor race into admissions decisions. The new report, by the Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and prominent advocate of class-based affirmative action, calls those states’ race-neutral policies largely successful. The University of California and others call them a failure that’s left their campuses inadequately representative of the states they serve.

Kahlenberg also acknowledges that highly selective universities like UCLA and the Universities of California-Berkeley and Michigan haven’t recovered from drop-offs in minority enrollments after voters in those states outlawed racial preferences.

But in most places, the report argues, a combination of measures – aggressive outreach, de-emphasizing of standardized tests, affirmative action based on class instead of race, and even getting rid of legacy preferences that mostly benefit whites – has allowed minority representation on their campuses to recover to previous levels.”

Race-based affirmative action has served the country well, allowing countless students to receive an education at a college or university that they otherwise would’ve been unable to attend.

Nonetheless, no person who has benefited from race-based affirmative action can feel very good about it. Why should I, they ask themselves, be allowed to attend this school based primarily on the color of my skin or the color of my parent’s skin?

That’s because race is no longer the hindrance it once was — not in Obama’s America. Class is the new determinant of opportunity in the United States; poor is the new brown.

Switching to class-based affirmative action would achieve two things at once: diversity would increase on college campuses (because if you help the poor, you’re also helping blacks and Latinos, who are disproportionately so) and you allow poor whites, who might find it just as difficult to receive a good education as many blacks and Latinos do, to receive that education.

Does racism still exist? Is the soaring structure of institutionalized racism still intact? Of course it is. Yet, race-based affirmative action strikes me as doing more harm than good at tearing down racial discrimination.

There’s no policy more racist than one that would allow an admissions office to look at a student’s grades, deem the student ineligible for admission, but then somehow, through voodoo academics, reverse their decision based on the student’s race. It would be like someone telling me, Oh! you’re smart and Latino? — as though being smart and Latino were like juggling while riding a unicycle.

Nothing keeps Latinos from getting into elite schools, not technically, because no one in today’s America is rejected by a school based on race or ethnic background. But getting into an Ivy League school while being lower class — coming from a poor family and growing up in a dilapidated neighborhood plagued by every sickness that poverty carries with it — now that’s tough.

Class-based affirmative action would achieve the very thing that Martin Luther King dreamed so many decades ago — “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

It’s not hard to be Latino and successful in today’s America. But to be poor and successful, now that takes character.

About Adriana Villavicencio

Dr. Adriana Villavicencio is the youngest child of Ecuadorian immigrants. She has moved 29 times in her life, taking her on a journey from California to Bangalore, India, and New York City, where she recently earned a Ph.D. in Education Leadership and works as a Research Associate at New York University. An avid traveler, Adriana has collected experiences in four different continents and 16 different countries. But as a former high school English teacher, some of her fondest memories are those of her brilliant and brilliantly funny students in Brooklyn and Oakland. Adriana has contributed to several publications including the Daily News and, and is a managing editor for the Journal of Equity in Education. She earned a B.A. in English and an M.A. in English Education at Columbia University, and currently serves on the board of Columbia’s Latino Alumni Association (LAACU). She enjoys scary movies with red vines, Sauvignon Blanc, and her Maltese dog, Napoleon.

To learn more about Adriana’s education consulting company, please visit

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and should not be understood to be shared by Being Latino, Inc.


  1. I can’t tell if this is a serious piece or a joke.

  2. No admissions based on race, sex, ethnic, or class. Base admissions on grades alone! Now that’s a revolutionary and progressive idea if I ever saw one. And if Latinos and blacks can’t get into a certain school because they have poor grades, well, so be it – study harder next time or go someplace else. When an institution or government agency tries to force “equality” you are hurting the chances of those who are really qualified. Now that’s really unAmerican!

  3. You sound like someone who either went to private school or attended public school in an urban center before they started sucking.

  4. Jimbo says:

    If you get rid of affirmative action the “legacies” and “good ol boy network” will still get in “undeserving” white people.

    Of course no one ever complains about that. That’s just the way things are. People only get upset when brown people “get” something that they think is in an unfair manner. When it’s white people the attitude seems to be “That’s just the way it is”.

  5. ticorules says:

    I’m somewhat confused by the author’s conclusions. If its wrong for voodoo academics based on race to be used in order to get someone into a school, why would voodoo academics be fine to use if its based on class?

    Similarly I’m unaware of any study that shows that people who’ve benefited from affirmative action feel bad about it. I’m not sure how they’d know that they benefited in any case. Its not like they pull people aside and say you know the only reason we allowed you into this great university is because you’re a women, native american, latino, black, Asian, veteran ect. I imagine they go about their business much like people whose family bought their way into school or legacy students with bad grades. They simply go about their business.

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