Equity Before Equality

By Guest Contributor

This column is written by white students and for white students. Each week, we will discuss topics or themes regarding race and, more specifically, the role of whiteness in race relations. If you would like to reach out to us personally to continue these conversations, please feel free to do so.

“Equity is giving everyone what they need to be successful. Equality is treating everyone the same” (Everyday Feminism).

The Civil Rights Act did not end racism. White people never lost their privileges. Imagine a 6’6 person standing next to a 5’2 person. Hopefully we can agree that there’s absolutely nothing that makes a 5’2 person intrinsically lesser than a 6’6 person. These two people are standing in front of a 6’2 wall when they’re asked to identify what is on the other side of the wall. If they succeed, they get anything of their choosing. They are technically on equal ground: the floor is straight and even. But they do not have an equal opportunity in the game. The game, in a way, is made for taller people. Equity would mean giving the 5’2 person something to climb on that would allow them to have the same view as the 6’6 person. We should acknowledge the extra effort that the less advantaged figure faced. Even this parable is over-simplified: if our society functions without some form of affirmative action and accountability for systemic and interpersonal discrimination, we are jeopardizing people of color’s access to education, jobs, wealth, healthcare etc., rather than just a prize. A lot more dire, right?

In the first article of this column (Facing Whiteness), we discussed why claiming to be colorblind ultimately works to perpetuate inequalities. Two subsequent articles quickly overviewed institutionalized discrimination practices that further racial oppression — housing policies, police brutality and mass incarceration. These (and many more) systemic inequalities render it ultimately impossible to claim that all races and ethnicities are treated the same in the United States. “Working hard” to achieve success and overcoming “obstacles” are much easier mantras to adopt when we are white. The obstacles we face are not rooted in 600 — and counting — years of institutional racism.

Affirmative action is the act of advancing the employment or educational opportunities of members of groups that have historically faced discrimination. Indeed, an attempt to work toward combating that institutional racism. While affirmative action programs regarding employment or private educational institutions have proven less controversial, similar programs in public colleges and universities have been defended multiple times at the Supreme Court, and for that reason face harsher scrutiny.

In 1978, the Supreme Court upheld the use of race as a factor in college admissions n the University of California v. Bakke. However, the use of specific racial quotas, or in this case, the reservation of 16 out of 100 seats for students of color, was ruled impermissible. The Court’s 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger again upheld the use of race as a factor in public college admissions. In 2008, Abigail Fisher filed a lawsuit against the University of Texas at Austin for discrimination on the basis of her race. Ironically, Fisher, a white woman, argued that using race as a factor in university admissions violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, which states, “no State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States … nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Ratified in 1866, this clause was largely intended to impede the passage of discriminatory laws known as the Black Codes that were designed to greatly restrict the freedom of Black U.S. Americans and largely perpetuated the socioeconomic and political conditions of slavery. Fisher v. University of Texas was argued in front of the Supreme Court on December 9, 2015, and a decision is likely to be published before the end of the term.

In 2013, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas cited mismatch theory in his concurring opinion in the Fisher case, and just a few months ago, the late Justice Scalia offhandedly endorsed it as well. Richard Sander, the author of the cited study, stated “the ‘mismatch hypothesis’ contends that any person … can be adversely affected if [they] attend a school where [their] level of academic preparation is substantially lower than that of [their] typical classmate.” Sander promises that in a world without affirmative action, Black Americans would attend lower-ranked law schools where they would perform better academically, producing an 8 percent increase in the number of new black lawyers. Among a storm of flawed assumptions in his analysis, the most glaring assumption is this: that the academic performance of Black students is due to personal failures, rather than the failures of racist institutions. Contrary to Sander’s claim, studies at Wisconsin and University of California at Davis found that, controlling for educational background, “the mismatch students are more likely to succeed at the more competitive UC campuses than those who ended up at less competitive campuses.”

Mismatch theory does not indicate that affirmative action is not beneficial; instead, its unintended side-effects illustrate that its extension would further compound institutional racism, because it would bar Black students that are just as likely to succeed from opportunities for success and leadership.

In a letter to the Supreme Court, the group for Equity & Inclusion in Physics & Astronomy illuminates the roots of this debate.

“Justice Roberts asked, ‘What unique perspective does a minority student bring to physics class?’ and ‘What [are] the benefits of diversity… in that situation?’ Before addressing these questions directly, we note that it is important to call attention to questions that weren’t asked by the justices, such as, ‘What unique perspectives do white students bring to a physics class?’ and ‘What are the benefits of homogeneity in that situation?’ We reject the premise that the presence of minority students and the existence of diversity need to be justified, but meanwhile segregation in physics is tacitly accepted as normal or good. Instead, we embrace the assumption that minority physics students are brilliant and ask, ‘Why does physics education routinely fail brilliant minority students?’”

What we are reading:

1. Ten Myths About Affirmative Action (Journal of Social Issues)

2. Equality Is Not Enough: What the Classroom Has Taught Me About Justice (Everday Feminism)

3. An Open Letter to SCOTUS from Professional Physicists (Equity & Inclusion in Physics & Astronomy Group)

4. The Real Impact of Eliminating Affirmative Action in American Law Schools (David L. Chambers et al.)

5. When You’re Accustomed to Privilege, Equality Feels Like Oppression (Huffington Post)


Aliza Cohen ’17 is from Chattanooga, Tenn.

Juliette Gobin ’16 is from Harrison, N.Y.

Emma Ronai-Durning ’18 is from Salem, Ore.

Anna Iglitzin ’17.5 is from Seattle, Wash.

Annie Taylor ’16 is from San Carlos, Calif.