The (Biblical) Case for Affirmative Action Today

“Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality.”  2 Corinthians 8:13

Because Jesus invented affirmative action in His own day, (For more on this, see my earlier post, "Jesus Invented Affirmative Action: ) I have a hard time believing He would oppose affirmative action in the present.  In fact, for reasons we’ll discuss later on in this post, I have a strong biblical basis to believe that He would be a strong advocate of affirmative action in the 21st century.

The statistical evidence is incontrovertible—we have two types of public educational systems in this country:  one for the rich who can afford to live in suburbia and go to high-achieving public schools, and another for the poor, largely students of color, who are legally required to attend their local under-achieving public schools.   In fact, much higher percentages of Latino (35%), African American (33%), and Native American (25%) students attend high-poverty schools than their white counterparts (4%) (NAACP Fact Sheet).  16 million children live in poverty in the United States and their zip code, not their talent, is most directly shaping their chances for educational success.

Kids born in poverty are 50% less likely to graduate from high school than children from more affluent backgrounds).   Those who do graduate come out of their 12 years of education with, on average, an 8th grade skill level.   Only 1 in 10 low-income students will graduate from college.  Spending in the richest 5% of schools is more than double the spending in the poorest 5% of schools.  On average, schools spend $900 less each year on students from low-income school districts as opposed to rich ones.  $614 less is spent per student in school districts that are predominantly comprised of students of color as opposed to majority white districts.   A report by Education Trust tells us that 36 states have a funding gap!

The well-known education advocacy group Teach for America highlights the devastating consequences of educational inequity in the United States:

“In America today, educational disparities limit the life prospects of…children growing up in poverty, impacting their earning potential, voter participation, civic engagement, and community involvement.  These disparities disproportionately impact African-American, Latino/Hispanic, and Native American children, who are three times as likely to live in a low-income area.”

One recent study conducted by my colleagues Tara Yosso (UCSB) and Daniel Solorzano (UCLA) revealed the grave educational disparities between Mexican American students and their wealthier white peers.  In their important 2006 study titled, “Leaks in the Chicana/o Educational Pipeline,” they found:

“Of the 100 Chicana and Chicano students who start at the elementary level, 54 of them drop out (or are pushed out) of high school and 46 continue on to graduate. Of the 46 who graduate from high school, about 26 continue on toward some form of postsecondary education. Of those 26, approximately 17 enroll in community colleges and nine enroll at four-year institutions. Of those 17 in community colleges, only one will transfer to a four-year institution. Of the 9 Chicana/os attending a four-year college and the 1 community college transfer student, 8 will graduate with a baccalaureate degree. Finally, 2 Chicana/o students will continue on to earn a graduate or professional school degree and less than 1 will receive a doctorate.”

Did you catch that?  Out of every 100 Chicana and Chicano students that begin elementary school only 8 will graduate from college.  Of these 8, only 2 will go on to earn a graduate or professional school degree.  And, quite astoundingly, less than 1 will receive a doctorate in any field.

Sadly, similar statistics can be reported for African Americans.  In 2005-2006, only 47% of African American male students graduated from high school.  In 2007, only 56% of African American high school graduates went on to attend college, and in that same year the college graduation rate for African Americans was only 42%.

What’s happening here?

Although there are significant numbers of Latinos and African Americans who are middle class, many Latinos and African Americans come from low-income communities.  As a result, large numbers of students of color are forced to attend inferior--and often segregated--public schools which provide inadequate educational training and opportunities.   According to UCLA professor Gary Orfield, inner city schools suffer from unequal funding, unqualified teachers, and weak curriculum.   Moreover, they are characterized by inadequate staffing, low numbers of high-achieving students, health and nutritional problems, unstable student populations, single-parent households, and high levels of exposure to crime and gang activity.  It is also common for urban schools to be ignored for recruitment by colleges and universities and employers.    On the other hand, inner city students are more likely to be recruited to the military.  In fact, some urban high schools even make special arrangements with the military to facilitate recruitment into the armed forces.   Good enough for cannon fodder but not good enough for Harvard.  As a final critique, Orfield notes that U.S. schools are more segregated today than in the 1950’s.  In my home state of California, which also happens to be the most diverse state in the nation, this segregation is especially apparently.  Half of blacks and Asians, and one quarter of Latino and Native American students, attend segregated schools in the Golden State.

All Christians have an affirmative obligation to care about students from low-income communities and to do something to help bring about change.   Matthew 25 teaches that what we do (or do not do) “for the least of these” students we do (or do not do) for Jesus.  Jesus appears to us in the “distressing disguise” of urban students and if we overlook them and their struggles then we are overlooking Him as if He were suffering in our midst.

Contrast the experience of inner city students, with the experience of students from wealthy families in suburban areas.  They are able to enroll in high quality public elementary, junior high, and high schools which prepare them well to compete in the university admissions process.  Suburban schools offer rigorous curriculum, numerous honors and advanced placement courses, strong counseling services, and various leadership and service opportunities.  Wealthy students are also able to afford fancy, expensive SAT/ACT prep courses which help them get high scores and gain admission to elite universities.  In fact, some students begin to study for the SAT in junior high!  Such students also often come from “legacies” in which parents and grandparents have attended the same university for generations.  All of these factors serve as “plus factors” for suburban students when time comes to apply for college.

In the spirit of the scripture passage which opened this chapter, educational affirmative action seeks to “level the playing field” for students from low-income communities:  “Our desire is not that others might be relieved (in this case inner city students) while you are hard pressed (suburban parents and their children), but that there might be equality (between poor and affluent students alike).”  2 Corinthians 8:13.   University affirmative action policies take into account the fact that educational inequity is still an ugly reality in the United States.   As a result, urban students are penalized in the admissions process for many reasons which are outside of their control.  Every single expression of educational inequality which we have discussed in this chapter (and there are many, many more) has real life consequences in the lives of students of color.  It’s not an abstract discussion for them as it may be for many of us reading this book.  My past seven years as a professor of Chicana/o Studies has taught me this.  Most of my students come from urban backgrounds and they have beat all the odds and struggled to overcome the very educational inequalities we’ve been discussing.  They inspire me every day.  It’s the greatest privilege not only to teach them, but also to learn from them and to hear their stories.

Most standard admissions criteria work against urban students and students of color for reasons which are outside of their control.   This standard criteria includes:  grade point average, standardized test scores, high school quality, curriculum  strength, geography, alumni relationships/”legacy”, and leadership.  At first blush you might be tempted to say that these measurements are fair and that they do not penalize inner city kids.  Let me break this down for you and show you how these factors disadvantage urban students in the admissions process.

First off—grades.  This seems like a neutral criterion right?  Wrong.   Elite public schools offer a wide selection of honors and AP courses; inner city schools do not.  This means that suburban students have the potential of earning a highly inflated g.p.a. because they get extra points credited to their gpa for every honors course.  If they get an “A” in a biology or history honors course then they get 5 out of 4 points on a 4 point scale.  If they get a “b” in physics or Spanish, then they still get 4 out of 4 points on a 4 point scale.   As a result, many of the most competitive suburban students graduate from high school with gpa’s which exceed 4.4.   Contrast that with the experience of urban kids.  Since their schools have less funding and less rigorous curriculum they might be lucky to have a few honors or A.P. classes available for them to take.  As a consequence, even if they got just a couple of B’s and the rest straight A’s it might only be possible for them to graduate with a 4.0 gpa.  Is that fair that they’ve done all that was possible for them to do and they still are put at a disadvantage vis-à-vis their suburban counterpart?  4.4 vs. 4.0?  Hmm…

Let’s turn to SAT test scores.  The highest predictor of success on the SAT is, guess what—parent income.  Why?   Because rich parents can pay for their kids to take fancy prep courses and get lots of private tutoring for the SAT and the parents of inner city kids cannot.   I did a little research on the pricing for SAT classes and this is what I found:

The most elite “private tutoring” offered by Princeton Review starts at $2,760 “depending on location.”   A “hybrid of tutoring and classroom,” “Small Group Instruction,” next on the list of fancy courses, starts at $1,499.  An “Ultimate Course,” is their “most intense” classroom option and it comes with a 150-point guaranteed score increase.   “Depending on location,” starts at $999.  I also recently learned of private SAT tutoring and college counseling “package deals” which range from $5,000 to $15,000!

It is impossible for most urban students to pay for these types of prep courses.  Many urban students work 20-30 hours a week, or more at minimum wage jobs, just to help their parents make rent and put food on the table.   When they come home late at night from their job to study they’re lucky if they can find a quiet space in a closet to get their homework done.   And you expect them to pay $1500 or more for an SAT prep course which is located 10 miles across town?  This amount is probably their family’s rent for a month!   Urban students should not be penalized for lower SAT scores because they were not able to afford a $1,000 prep course; they needed the $1,000 to help their parents pay for food and rent.

And then there’s “high school quality” and “curriculum strength.”   As we’ve already discussed, most inner city schools are poorly funded.  This translates into less qualified teachers and a small selection of honors and a.p. courses.  Should an inner city kid get “dinged” in the application process because they attended the only local public school which was available to them and this school happened to be underfunded, understaffed, and offered a weak curriculum?

Alumni relationships and “legacy”:  Some elite colleges and universities give special consideration to students whose parents graduated from the same school to which a student is applying.  If someone’s daddy went to Harvard or an Ivy League school, then that Ivy League school will give special consideration to that student’s application—not because of anything meritorious that that student accomplished on their own, but just because their daddy went their 25 years before.    Contrast this with the experience of most inner city students who are first-generation college students.    They’re lucky if they are the first in their family to make it past 8th grade, let alone do they have a parent who graduated from Harvard.   And so, the “legacy” criterion obviously works against most urban students for reasons which are outside of their control.

How about “leadership”?   This also seems like one of those factors that is neutral, right?  In some cases yes, but in many cases no.  If you come from a low-income community but your parents earn a decent living you might have some time to get active in the “key club,” join band, etc.  But what about those many urban high school students who have to work 20-30 hours a week at Subway so that their family can have food to eat?  It is likely that such a student is not going to have much “free time” to devote to running for study body president or president of the Key Club.   As a consequence, the high-achieving inner city student with lots of educational potential gets penalized when applying to highly competitive colleges and universities.

About the only factor that does not work against urban kids is “geography.”  Many universities like to have a geographic mix of students in order to have a diverse student body.  Also, public universities also strive to accept a representative sampling of students from different geographic regions in their state.  At least urban students are not penalized by this.

Affirmative action recognizes that traditional admissions criteria penalize inner city students for reasons which are outside of their control and seeks to create equality in the university admissions process.   The desire is not that suburban students be “hard pressed” when it comes to the university application process,  “but that there might be equality” between poor and affluent students alike.   Affirmative action seeks to level the admissions playing field for urban students by allowing them to compensate for these various factors which are outside their control.   Did an urban student have a lower SAT score because they did not have $1,000 to shelve out for a fancy prep course?  Did an urban student have less opportunities to participate in public service because they had to work at Subway’s for 30 hours a week in the evenings?  Was their gpa lower because their high school did not offer many honors courses?   Instead of penalizing them for these factors which are outside of their control, affirmative action programs assign admissions “points” for non-traditional categories such as “overcoming socio-economic hardship.”  Rather than “giving a hand-out,” affirmative action rewards urban students for working hard, beating the odds, and overcoming tremendous obstacles which their suburban counterparts could not even imagine.   Again, the goal is equality.

Affirmative action is justified not only on the grounds of promoting equality of opportunity, but also because educational diversity improves learning outcomes, shatters stereotypes, and prepares students for participation in an increasingly globalized society.  When students (or anyone for that matter) get a chance to interact with others who are different from themselves, they get to hear new perspectives.  In turn, classroom discussions become livelier and more spirited and interesting.  As students interact, they get to form cross-cultural friendships, and as they get to know one another better, racist stereotypes fall by the wayside.  As they form new friendships, moreover, they learn that not everyone sees or does things the same way, and this better prepares them for the global workforce of the 21st century.

Those of you who are familiar with constitutional law have already caught on to the fact that the “diversity rationale” for affirmative action that I have just articulated is not original.  I just quoted, almost word for word, the diversity rationale given by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2003 affirmative action case of Gratz v. Bollinger.   In Gratz and its companion case of Grutter v. Bollinger, the U.S. Supreme Court held that race-based affirmative action is constitutionally permissible because educational diversity is a “compelling interest.”  In the words of the esteemed court (which I often find myself in disagreement with):

“Today we endorse… [the} view that student body diversity is a compelling state interest that can justify the use of race in university admissions….[T]he Equal Protection Clause does not prohibit the Law School's narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.”

“These benefits are substantial. As the District Court emphasized, the Law School's admissions policy promotes "cross-racial understanding," helps to break down racial stereotypes, and "enables [students] to better understand persons of different races." These benefits are "important and laudable," because "classroom discussion is livelier, more spirited, and simply more enlightening and interesting" when the students have "the greatest possible variety of backgrounds."

“In addition to the expert studies and reports entered into evidence at trial, numerous studies show that student body diversity promotes learning outcomes, and ‘better prepares students for an increasingly diverse workforce and society, and better prepares them as professionals.’"

What strikes me about the diversity theory articulated by the Supreme Court in the Gratz and Grutter cases is that it is entirely biblical without even realizing it.  This has really struck me in recent years when I’ve taught about this case in my class, titled, “The History and Politics of Affirmative Action.”   The Supreme Court’s understanding of diversity comports entirely with the “biblical framework of diversity” which we have discussed in an earlier post (see:

To summarize briefly, here, every human being holistically reflects the image of God in terms of their individual gifts, talents, and personality, cultural background(s), gender, and socio-economic background.  As unique reflections of the image of God, every human being is inherently valuable.  They are inherently valuable because they reveal to us an aspect of who God is that we could never understand on our own.  Stated another way, we need their God-given diversity in order to learn more about who God is and to have a more well-rounded view of the world.

Schools, colleges, and universities have a “compelling interest” in maintaining diverse student bodies if they want to partake of, and benefit from, the many educational benefits which flow from God’s human diversity.   God made students diverse, and unique reflections of himself, for a reason.  As distinct reflections of the image of God, every student, especially because of their God-given cultural heritage, has a unique contribution to make to the educational system.  If we exclude them from going to school with our sons and daughters, for whatever politically-charged reason we can convince ourselves of, it’s us and our children who lose out.  If we oppose affirmative action and increased minority representation in colleges and universities, then we turn our backs upon a treasure of blessing which God intends for all students to benefit from.  The greater the diversity of our colleges and universities, the more every student stands to profit, because this diversity is a gift from God.

In love with God's diversity,

Robert Chao Romero