Affirmative Action: A Step Forward on a Long Road


Marcella Barneclo

In an ideal world, diversity in higher education would not be an issue; qualified BIPOC youth would be admitted to selective universities and see their skin tone and phenotypes mirrored in their surrounding community. However, reality is starkly different, and the University of California system is a prime example of how minority groups are largely left out and misrepresented in higher education, due to California’s wrongful ban on affirmative action.

Affirmative action is defined as certain policies that use the consideration of race, gender, class, etc. to increase representation. In the realm of education, affirmative action dismantled de jure segregation on a national level after schools were lawfully desegregated in 1954 through the famous Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education. Now, affirmative action in higher education would give UC colleges the ability to consider race and gender in students’ applications, which would greatly benefit minority groups by strengthening diversity and representation among all campuses. However, California recently rejected Proposition 16, which would have repealed Proposition 209, the 1996 ban on affirmative action in the state. The rejection of this policy is likely due to a widespread misunderstanding and stigmatization of affirmative action. For a number of years, the policy has been accused of implementing reverse discrimination by providing unfair preferential treatment to minority groups, specifically Black people, but this is blantantly incorrect. Affirmative action’s intent is not to single out one race or reversely discriminate against another but rather to equalize opportunities afforded to minority groups. 

With this definition in mind, the affirmative action reimplementation would likely result in a faster rise of underrepresented groups than outreach programs can currently offer. In recent years, UC campuses have been seeing some small improvements in the numbers of underrepresented minorities, but this process has been sluggish and arduous, requiring trial and error of certain outreach programs to receive only mediocre results. In 2012, the UC system created the Nine Percent Plan to gain a diverse group of high-achieving students from different high schools by giving them automatic access to a UC school; yet this program did nothing to boost diversity, according to an evaluation carried out by UC Riverside. When looking at the California Native American population, UC outreach programs and recruitment often fail to reach them. A survey done by UC faculty members in 2016 reported that 68 percent of high-achieving African-American students turned down their offer of admission because they received no outreach or support. Latinos have made significant strides in their enrollment numbers, but this increase is mainly attributed to the rise in their public high school graduation rates and not outreach programs. Even with some successful programs, the overall population of Black, Native American, and Latino students remains low across the UC system and even more so at highly selective campuses like UC Berkeley and UCLA. With the ability to consider race in admissions, UC schools would not solely rely on outreach programs to achieve diversity.

Though, as previously mentioned, affirmative action has been consistently stigmatized over the years, which is why it is often rejected by voters. In order to implement this policy and benefit BIPOC students, racial groups have to stop competing against one another in an unnecessary battle over “limited” seats at UC schools. Asian Americans saw a rise in attendance at UC campuses following the passing of race-neutral admissions, which means they are often at the forefront of the battle against affirmative action due to the fear of losing spots on campuses. However, the increase of Asian Americans was due to shifting demographics in California and the group’s high probability of actually attending a UC school. Race-neutral policies never directly benefited Asian Americans in the UC system; hence, if race were to be considered, Asian Americans would most likely maintain a large portion of representation on campuses. Again, it is important to remember that affirmative action only seeks to provide equal opportunities for BIPOC students.    

To address another point of contention, some people believe that affirmative action admits “undeserving” students to UC schools because college admissions should be based on merit alone. However, UC admissions criteria already skew away from a complete meritocracy by using a holistic approach, evaluating students on a more personal level rather than using test scores, grades, and academics to determine a student’s future potential. With this criteria in mind, affirmative action and the consideration of race would provide an entirely new personal perspective of students during the application process. Plus, the challenges that BIPOC students face in a predominantly white society would no longer be ignored. 

Furthermore, with the ability to directly account for race in admissions, the UC system would not have to make weak attempts at singling out BIPOC students through the use of social class. UC schools evaluate where students received their secondary education as well as their area of residence to account for students coming from poverty-stricken backgrounds. Still, diversity remains low because while class and race can be interrelated, the two terms are not synonymous and attempting to grow racial diversity by only targeting lower-class students is insufficient. Affirmative action, on the other hand, is able to cut straight to the point rather than attempt to diversify on the basis of social class alone. Additionally, affirmative action also serves to benefit middle-class BIPOC students who may not be directly targeted by the UC systems’ consideration of social class. A study by Brookings Institution shows that middle-class students who attend a selective four-year university are more likely to move up in social class and obtain a higher-paying job. Ultimately, affirmative action is a far more efficient method for promoting diversity and uplifting underrepresented minorities as opposed to concentrating only on social class.  

All in all, I am not implying that affirmative action is the end-all be-all solution to society’s deep-rooted biases stemming from an extensive history filled with the exclusion of minorities. I know that simply implementing this one policy is not enough to entirely uplift and equalize the opportunities denied to BIPOC communities because of segregation and Jim Crow laws that created these educational disparities. However, affirmative action is a step in the right direction and a necessary change. 

Art by Yui Kita for the UC San Diego Guardian