Affirmative Action, from its inception, has been as venerated as vilified, reasonable minds differing over the fairness and efficacy of the initiative. But to disparage the noble objectives of Affirmative Action—in its various manifestations and appellations worldwide (“Reservation” in India and Nepal and “Positive Action” in the United Kingdom, for example)—requires either a gross misunderstanding or a deliberate misrepresentation of the initiative. Setting aside the arguably nebulous, feel-good, socio-centric arguments of “fostering diversity,” “rectifying past and systematic discrimination,” and “mismatching,” Affirmative Action withstands even the strictest of scrutiny on purely rational grounds.
Within the context of academia, Affirmative Action correctly recognizes that standardized exams—currently the most objective, even if not the best, indicator of applicants’ academic achievements—are more measures of “knowledge” than of “intelligence,” and that knowledge is more a factor of environment and exposure than of intelligence. Furthermore, intelligence trumps knowledge: colleges and universities are more interested in students’ native intelligence than in their pre-admissions knowledge since those institutions recognize that provided that a student is equipped with a proper academic foundation, it is the institutions’ responsibility to cultivate knowledge the intelligent minds of their students. In other words, “Bring us your intelligence, and we will supply you with knowledge.”
The notion that Affirmative Action gives certain students an unfair advantage over certain other students is unfounded. To the contrary, in order to foster fairness in the admissions process, a balance between knowledge and intelligence is sought, allowing admissions specialists to take the test scores of standardized exams and interpret them vis-à-vis knowledge-impacting environmental factors so at to be able to extrapolate the more important intelligence component: What would the students who attended the nation’s best grade schools and high schools; were raised in homes by university-educated parents; had full, 24/7 access to computers, the internet, and other learning material at home; broadened their minds by employment and travel, sometimes internationally, each summer; were exposed to foreign language courses since grade school and spent a semester abroad in high school in order to hone their language skills; and scored a perfect 1600 on the SATs, what would those students—with those very same brains in their heads—have scored on those very same standardized exams had they gone to substandard inner-city schools, been raised by parents who never went to college, did not grow up in a home filled with books and other learning devices, had to work after school at the local fast-food restaurant in order to contribute to the family’s finances, and had access, only during “study hall,” to a library since the neighborhood library is inadequate and closes at the end of the business day? A score of 1200? And what would the students from the underprivileged circumstances who score 1200 have scored had they, with those same brains in their heads, had access to the knowledge-inducing resources of the privileged students? A score of 1600? Affirmative Action—rightfully so—allows admissions professionals to consider whether those two scores are representative of persons of equal intellect. Where is the unfairness in that? It is the equivalent of an athletic coach taking into consideration the time of a half-trained, barefoot, 100-meter sprinter versus a fully trained, fully equipped 100-meter sprinter when considering which one would ultimately perform better, all things equal, or which one possesses the greater sprinting potential.
Where Affirmative Action becomes unfair is in the few, under-the-radar instances when privileged applicants are assessed as if they are underprivileged or disadvantaged, and when underprivileged or disadvantaged applicants are assessed as if they are privileged, thereby compounding other long-established unfair admissions policies such as “legacy admissions” and the “Old-Boy Network” where applicants, typically privileged ones, are afforded “special consideration” in the admissions process.
The word “quota,” too, has long sent unjustified chills up and down the spines of majority-population applicants and critics of Affirmative Action who misunderstand—oftentimes deliberately—how and when quotas are imposed. Quotas, rightfully, acknowledge the fundamental equality of all of humanity—regardless of race, gender, color, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, political ideology, culture, gender affiliation, national origin, etc. As such, quotas are used as a last-resort device to systematically repair blatant under-representation of certain disadvantaged groups despite their demographics, the logical presumption being that unbiased admissions policies would reflect a student body consistent with the overall population.