For a country that preaches equality for all, the United States is infested with inequity.
In order to rectify this inequity, systemic discrimination in all levels of society — from education to employment — must be resolved.
I would expect a “progressive” state like California to vote in favor of adopting legislation that might help level the playing field. But in November, Proposition 16, one such progressive stride that would have reinstated affirmative action, was rejected in California by a margin of 57% to 43%.
In 1961, former president John F. Kennedy introduced affirmative action to help combat unlawful discrimination against underrepresented students and help alleviate the effects of past discrimination. This was amid the Civil Rights Movement, when many Americans increasingly supported equal opportunities for underrepresented minorities.
Still, while affirmative action has been around for decades, it remains a contentious topic today.
Prop. 16 was introduced in the November election in response to its 1996 predecessor, Prop. 209, which effectively banned affirmative action in California.
Prop. 209 had an especially adverse effect on diversity in education and employment. It caused some undergraduate students to enroll in less prestigious universities. Additionally, these prestigious universities accepted fewer underrepresented students into STEM majors.
Partly as a result of this, underrepresented graduates earn, on average, a 5% lower starting salary after completing their degree. The number of Black and Latinx adults in high-earning jobs also decreased by 3%-6% after the passage of Prop. 209. Revoking affirmative action put social and political formalities in place that caused harm to underrepresented individuals and groups.
In 1998, after affirmative action was banned, there were about 7% fewer underrepresented applicants to the UC system compared to previous years when affirmative action was in place. In addition, the number of underrepresented students admitted to the UC system dropped by 12% after Prop. 209 was passed. Removing affirmative action created a positive bias for certain racial groups, excluding underrepresented communities.
Education is more than a privilege; it is also a form of socioeconomic empowerment. Limiting access to education for underprivileged groups stands to withhold opportunity and, on a larger scale, social mobility.
Groups opposed to Prop. 16 and affirmative action claim that mismatch theory will prevent underrepresented groups from succeeding. Mismatch theory suggests that underrepresented minorities admitted to prestigious universities could be overwhelmed by the academic rigor. Some take this a step further by suggesting, incorrectly, that many underrepresented students admitted into prestigious universities with nonacademic inclination are incapable of academically thriving.
Mismatch theory furthers the idea that certain behaviors result from a problem with the individual without acknowledging the context of an individual’s life. The theory also assumes that underrepresented students will be unable to thrive in certain universities, while simultaneously overlooking the environments and systemic inequities these students have grown up with.
In reality, underrepresented students are far from incapable. These students have worked hard to overcome every difficult situation and deserve every chance to be accepted into a top university.
Much has also changed between 1996 and 2020 to support underrepresented students on college campuses, with increasing access to academic and mental health resources.
A national study has also found that many campuses have created programs specifically to help underrepresented groups succeed academically. Resources such as personal tutors, study groups, tutoring office hours and learning centers all provide students safe spaces to connect and grow.
While affirmative action remains an imperfect policy, it will still take us a step closer to equal opportunity for everyone, as well as increase awareness about the pervasive force of structural racism in public and private institutions.
The ultimate goal for our future is equal representation in all universities for all communities. With a complex society made up of interconnected systems of education, housing and employment, we must work to create policies that will abolish systemic racism in each of them.
But in order to achieve the larger goal of eradicating racism, we must begin with small steps in the right direction. This will include passing a just and progressive policy to reenact affirmative action while accounting for its inevitable flaws.
Discriminatory policies, as well as a lack of policy to address discrimination, can impose real harm on communities. Our goal should be to enact policies that expressly protect and support underrepresented communities.
It is up to students from all backgrounds to advocate these policies and to vote for them, too. This starts by being informed about them and informing others.
Higher education is one of the most significant means by which future generations can begin to push for inclusive and equitable change. By abolishing systemic racism in admissions, we can catalyze the abolishment of other forms of systemic racism, one by one.
Natesh Saini is an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley studying molecular and cell biology.