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ADAMES: Reforming affirmative action, the right way

Affirmative action based on class omits residential segregation

Last semester, fellow writer William Wong penned a column in favor of reforming affirmative action. While I do not disagree with the aim, Wong’s rationale behind it fails to paint a full picture by ignoring other data which contradict his own arguments. Furthermore, his advocacy for an affirmative action on the basis of socioeconomic status omits the role of residential segregation.

In his claim against race-based affirmative action, Wong unsurprisingly cites the work of UCLA’s Richard Sander. However, sixteen different social scientists examined Sander’s data but didn’t reach the same conclusions. Furthermore, in an amicus curiae brief for Fisher v. University of Texas, leading scholars and methodologists find Sander’s study fails to meet the “basic standards of good empirical social science research.”

In fact, as Richard Lempert details, the overwhelming majority of social scientific research demonstrates there is no link between affirmative action and failure to graduate — something Wong’s presentation of data would have you think otherwise. Sociologists Mary Fischer and Douglas Massey even show minority students admitted to selective universities who scored below the institutional SAT average performed better and had lower dropout rates. Education researchers Sigal Alon and Marta Tienda find similar results, demonstrating minority students have better graduation rates at elite colleges than their least-selective counterparts in spite of their initial and perceived disadvantage. In another study, Harvard’s Mario Small and Christopher Winship come to similar conclusions, particularly with respect to black students.

Now, it is not just these aforementioned scholars who reject the notion that affirmative action harms minority students in general. In an amicus curiae brief for the Fisher v. University of Texas case, 823 social scientists argued in favor of preserving race-based affirmative action.

Moreover, The American Educational Research Association, the American Statistical Association, the American Political Science Association, the American Anthropological Association, the American Sociological Association and the American Psychological Association filed amicus curiae briefs in support of preserving race-based affirmative action.

Wong goes on to consider alternatives to affirmative action. One of those alternatives is class-based affirmative action, an option I also previously supported. While I certainly do not deny the successes of class-based preferences to preserve diversity in some institutions, the broad application of such preferences merits further research because class-based affirmative action presumes that all socioeconomically disadvantaged students are equally disadvantaged. However, this is far from true. Researchers at Stanford found lower-income White Americans tend to reside in middle-income neighborhoods. This prevalence advantages the lower-income white students by providing them access to the resources typically available to middle-income students. On the other hand, the researchers found lower-income black students tend to live in neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty, limiting them from the middle-class resources available to lower-income whites. Likewise, middle-income blacks also tend to live in neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty, resulting in similar disadvantages.

If measured by income, affirmative action based on socioeconomic status would often disproportionately benefit Whites because poor whites are able to reap the benefits of living in middle-income communities. This is displayed in data from The College Board, which shows that, at every income level, whites outperform blacks on the SAT, a significant factor in college admissions.

Accordingly, rather than an affirmative action based on income, we should strive for an affirmative action based on zip code. A growing body of data have shown one’s zip code is the greatest predictor of life outcomes, including educational attainment and health. Affirmative action meant to counter the effects of residential segregation by focusing on zip codes achieves what an affirmative action based on socioeconomic status is meant to accomplish: provide the nation’s most underprivileged with a better shot at upward mobility and the American Dream. Aside from benefitting blacks and Hispanics, a zip code-based affirmative action would aid lower-income whites that live in income-segregated communities (e.g., Appalachian whites) and avoid the “negative action” (i.e., “Asian tax”) referenced by Wong.

By citing only data where minority students are found to be underperforming, Wong effectively — intentionally or unintentionally — aggrandizes the issue of mismatch. Perhaps some minority students admitted under affirmative action do underperform, but to portray this occurrence as the general trend is to be remiss of much data demonstrating the positive effect it has had for many minorities. Moreover, to base affirmative action solely on class hides the reality that the white poor have an upper hand over the black poor. If the nation seeks to resolve inequalities, then it is imperative that alleviatory measures address the effect of residential segregation on educational opportunity.

Alexander Adames is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at