I AM AFRICAN-AMERICAN AND would like to be considered for the National Achievement Award." I paused, holding my #2 pencil, and briefly reconsidered my decision. After a few moments, the proctor gave instructions for filling out the next section of the PSAT. I moved on, leaving the circle empty.
Several months later, my guidance counselor congratulated and scolded me. She was pleased that I had qualified as a National Merit scholar. She was disappointed that I had not asked to be considered for National Achievement, the reduced standards honor offered to black students who rarely qualify for National Merit. Despite her assurance that prestigious schools all over America would have been courting me had I not acted so foolishly, I didn't think it was an additional honor to be considered a top black student when I was able to compete as a top student, no qualifiers added.
The predominant belief among people like my counselor who support racial preferences-a belief embodied in the very term "affirmative action"-is that such preferences somehow affirm the value of black achievement. Indeed, attaching a higher reward to black achievement does acknowledge value of a sort. A diamond is valuable because it is rare. In the same way, affirmative action indicates that black achievement is highly valuable because it is rare. This premise, when used to justify ongoing affirmative action, fundamentally denies the ability of black people to perform at the same intellectual level as whites and Asians. Such a sentiment is far more insulting than its policy manifestations are affirming. Indeed, how can any policy based on an assumption of inferiority be considered affirming at all?
Racial preferences disaffirm the abilities of minorities both as a group and as individuals. The common belief that the average black person must struggle through crippling, inner-city poverty in order to achieve academic success is actually not true: Only one in five black persons is poor and lives in the inner city. The common belief that all black people, regardless of class, suffer from racism to such an extent that it hampers academic achievement cannot be fully confirmed or denied using simple statistics, but minority author John McWhorter in Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in the Black Community (Perennial, 2000) challenges the view that systemic racism still pervades American society.
Some black people are still in poverty and still subject to a combination of class- and race-based disadvantage-but affirmative action seems ill-suited to help these individuals. Because the black community is economically diverse, those who are most likely to suffer racially based disadvantage and those who are most likely to benefit from racial preference are different people. Mr. McWhorter notes that the black students populating his classes at the University of California-Berkeley were from the middle class and not from the ranks of the poor, whose plight is often invoked in support of affirmative action.
As poverty and racism become less and less viable as explanations for black performance, the existence of affirmative action comes closer and closer to implying that black people as a group are inferior. Affirmative action judges individual students by a lower standard on the basis of race without asking the student to make any claim of personal disadvantage. In the case of the PSAT, it says to the student, "If a white person had made this score, it would not be noteworthy. But for you it is an honor even if the two of you have the same background." In the case of college admissions, it says, "We would consider a white person with your record to be below our standards. But, considering you are black, you have done well for yourself and should be rewarded with admission even if you have experienced no more hardship than a white person we rejected."
I find this insulting. Even a person who has experienced more racism and disadvantage than I have should find it so. As Mr. McWhorter asks, are black people so weak that we cannot achieve in any but ideal circumstances? Asians and Jews are minorities who have suffered their share of oppression and discrimination, yet we do not consider it extraordinary when an Asian or a Jew does well. For a middle-class black student who has not experienced severe racism to want to be evaluated by lower standards requires either an unhealthy ability to exaggerate the extent of victimhood or a willingness to acknowledge academic inferiority-which strikes me as highly degrading.
Those of us who do not support affirmative action are caught in tension between wanting to believe that we have earned our achievements solely through merit and knowing that we cannot prevent others from taking race into account when they admit, hire, and promote us. Affirmative action is ultimately patronizing to the individual students who receive it. Rather than affirming them, it marks them as less able than other students to achieve by their own merit. Similarly, it dishonors the black community in general by saying that America expects less of black people, regardless of their particular circumstances, than it does of other people. Affirming? Not really.
-Prisca Shrewsbury is a senior at Harvard