Jun 28, 2013

Affirmative action: class or ethnicity?

Nicholas Jones at the Herald reports:

Students from poor backgrounds could have places reserved for them at the country's largest university in a shake-up of admissions currently targeted according to ethnicity. 

In a first for the country, the University of Auckland council has supported a proposal to improve access to higher education for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, regardless of ethnicity. 

At present, the targeted admission programme allows for Maori, Pasifika and students with disabilities.

For the most part, I’m not opposed to affirmative action on the basis of income.

Having said that, reserving places for low income students might compromise affirmative action’s most important aim: diversity, or, “that a critical mass of racial diversity is an education necessity”. That was the leading argument in Grutter/Gratz v. Bollinger – an affirmative action case before the Supreme Court of the United States – and Fisher v. University of Texas (where the argument was upheld – again).*

Affirmative action (on the basis of ethnicity) isn’t and shouldn’t be seen solely as atonement for past injustice. Affirmative action is, for the most part, a response to contemporary ethnic inequalities. It happens that ethnic inequality is sometimes a stand in for class inequality. For that reason, I'm not entirely opposed to affirmative action based on income.

However, recognising ethnicity acknowledges that the education system isn’t designed to accommodate Polynesian** learning styles. Education in New Zealand is largely monocultural. That puts Polynesian students, especially Polynesians immersed in their own culture, at a disadvantage. Systemic disadvantage exists. Under Article 2.2 of the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination affirmative action can be a requirement to remedy systemic disadvantage. In other words, there's broad consensus that affirmative action based on ethnicity is acceptable and sometimes necessary.**  

The argument holds for disabled students too. The New Zealand education system treats disabled students poorly. Many opportunities are not open to disabled students. The best method to rectify that is to base affirmative action around ethnicity and disabilities. Class has its merits, but it misses, say, Maori students who don't meet the income threshold but are disadvantaged because they're oral learners. 

Race can be a proxy for (low) income, but race and disability is a better proxy for (lack of) opportunity.

Resistance to affirmative action based on ethnicity and disability is resistance against sharing privilege. Equality in law and policy – that nebulous, protean and prejudiced idea – must give way to equality in fact. Auckland University may be making the wrong decision. Thoughts? 

Post script: ideally, affirmative action programmes consider several factors including: ethnicity, language spoken at home (e.g Maori, Samona, Somali etc), household income and makeup (e.g. did the applicant grow up in a single-parent household) and school decile. Ethnicity should be the primary factor, though. Perhaps framing affirmative action as about ethnicity only or income only is problematic.

*The Fisher case is not without its difficulties. Although affirmative action was upheld, the Supreme Court sent it back to the lower courts. The strategy behind the decision is “a cynical attempt to let the lower court bury it”.

**The Bill of Rights Act 1990 holds that affirmative action is legal, but there the act doesn't impose a requirement for affirmative action. The Human Rights Act 1993 also allows affirmative action. 


  1. Ta-Nehisi Coates has been talking around this issue lately in his blog at the Atlantic. If I have him right, he's saying (in the US context) affirmative action based on class status/economic standing misses lots of other systematic disadvantage that is captured by an ethnicity criterion; for example, because communities tend to be highly segregated, an equivalently poor black family and white family will be part of communities that are differentially affected and limited by poverty.

    It's a developing theme he's addressed several times over the last few months, e.g. http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/06/revisiting-the-moynihan-report/276936/ - and it was certainly something I'd never considered before. It seems to match up well with your point about income vs. opportunity.

  2. Thanks for that. Very interesting (Coates is one of my favourite writers) - that'll be my weekend reading.

  3. I'm not sure that a US court decision demonstrates the aims of affirmative action in the USA effectively.

    But having said that, even if we accept that the current primary goal of affirmative action is diversity, that doesn't mean that we have to accept that that always will be the only or primary goal. If I argue that affirmative action should promote income mobility, saying "Well, it doesn't promote that now" isn't a counterargument.

  4. *demonstrates the aims of affirmative action IN NEW ZEALAND, pardon me.

  5. I think the important point and justification for AA is that it is future-oriented. It cannot be a vehicle for compensation or atonement of past injustice (and is no substitute for them), or a form of welfare; it exists to create a more balanced and fair society in the future. In that sense, it is not even about the individuals who participate, but about the consequences for future generations.

    So yes, I think AU is weakening AA to subsidise a different kind of assistance.

    Of course there are poor white families that perpetuate a hopeless outlook, but that requires a different kind of intervention since society has plenty of white success stories already.

  6. this was a very interesting article, thank you for sharing it

  7. Sorry guys - response is too long so have to do it in 2 parts:
    I have several thoughts which you may wish to consider re Auckland University's change in its 'Undergraduate Targeted Admissions Scheme ' (UTAS) policy. These mainly focus on your points regarding ethnicity.
    People have different interpretations as to the ultimate goal of 'Affirmative Action'. You state that its most important aim (goal) is Diversity. I disagree with your position and believe its ultimate goal is to create a society where all people have a fair and equal chance in life - based on merit and as free from unfairness and bias as possible. To achieve this , we need to create a level playing field where all people have equal opportunity/access to good education and employment. By providing a level playing field, where people are judged equally on their merit and ability, diversity will follow. In other words diversity is a beneficial consequence rather than 'Affirmative Actions' most important aim.
    It's also important to note that Auckland University's UTAS policy (Vice Chancellor -Equity, 2009) isn't disadvantaging any previously eligible group. The range is broadened to include those disadvantaged through their financial situation and/or being refugees. This increases the diversity of students attending the university. More importantly, it assists in levelling the playing field for those suffering from that particular disadvantage - providing they show merit. If it's perceived to be a disadvantage, then it is only just and fair that all people in that group be included - irrespective of ethnicity or disability.
    We are living in a more globalised and technologically changing world. New Zealand is small and reliant on overseas trade. We can't afford be insular and must adapt to this changing world; not the other way around. English is an international language and the education system, even though flawed, holds us in good stead both here and overseas (QS World University Rankings, 2014).
    To blame the 'largely mono-cultural' system alone, for Pasifika underachievement in education, is to excuse some parents and extended family from their responsibilities.
    Education starts, and needs to be continually supported, in the home. It also fails to recognise the efforts and achievements of families and the Ministry of Education that have led to an upward trend (Ministry of Education, 2015) in Pasifika achievement in education over the past few years. Particularly in early childhood education attendance and primary/secondary school achievement. For instance. The relative increase in Pasifika school leavers achieving University Entrance standard has increased from 23.1% (2009) to 36.3% (2013) compared to non-Pasifika 43.8% to 50.5% respectively. However, Just over 20% of pacific children attend preschool where over 50% is taught in a pacific language. Add to this homes where a pacific language is mainly spoken. Strictly in terms of education, I don't think this gives the child the best preparation for entering the formal school system. It's the parent's choice but they may be disadvantaging their child from the offset.

  8. Part 2:
    The school system has flaws; but no system is going to suit every person at all times. It also affects many people, not just specifically Pacific or Maori learners. All people have different learning styles (eg: Kinetic, Oral, visual, mix of these). Several studies even conclude there is no evidence to suggest that a change in style, suited to that person, produces better results (H, McDaniel, Rohrer, & Bjork, 2008). Many migrant or NZ-born learners from non-European cultures, such as Chinese or Indian students, also face the same situation and yet still achieve (Ministry of Education, 2013) whilst maintaining their culture. Technology is changing traditional education, such as online learning and extramural study, which may disadvantage older or technically challenged people. It's an individual's/group's choice as to what degree they are prepared to adapt to the changing world. But a possible consequence of not adapting is to fall behind.
    Your claim that 'resisting Affirmative Action based on ethnicity/disability is a resistance against sharing privilege' is a false dichotomy. I want all people to have a fair and equal opportunity in life/education/employment - I just don't think it's the best way to achieve it. 'Affirmative Action' is a temporary measure at best and will not redress the issue. Tertiary qualification completion rates between 2006-2011 (Ministry of Education, 2013) for Pacific students were between 50-60%, while for Europeans it was between 70-75%. The completion rate for Post-graduate degrees, by Pacific students, was much higher (generally
    mid 70%). This suggests (I may be off the mark) that many Pacific students enter tertiary study under prepared. Those who are prepared, do very well. I don't object to reserved
    places per se but I don't see it as a long-term solution to the problem. It may benefit some who will get into tertiary education, but it doesn't guarantee their success nor will it help the majority. I see the solution as increased funding and continuation of programs that are effective in increasing Pacific children's performance at school. Create a level playing field where all Pacific children are adequately prepared and can compete equally - whether their choice be a tertiary education, trade, or some other endeavour. It isn't a quick-fix, but hopefully a solution to finally end this problem.

    Works Cited
    H, P., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008, December). Learning Styles: Concepts & Evidence. Retrieved from Psychologicalscience.org: http://www.psychologicalscience.org/journals/pspi/PSPI_9_3.pdf
    Ministry of Education. (2013, January 31). Tertiary Key Statistics. Retrieved from Pasifika Education Plan 2013-17: http://www.minedu.govt.nz/NZEducation/EducationPolicies/PasifikaEducation/
    Ministry of Education. (2015). Pasifika Education Targets. Retrieved from Education Counts: https://www.educationcounts.govt.nz/statistics/pasifika-education/progress_against_pasifika_education_plan_targets
    QS World University Rankings. (2014). QS World University Rankings 2014/15. Retrieved from topuniversities.com: http://www.topuniversities.com/university-rankings/world-university-rankings/2014#sorting=rank+region=317+country=334+faculty=+stars=false+search=
    Vice Chancellor -Equity. (2009, March 30). University of Auckland. Retrieved from Equity Policy (UTAS): https://cdn.auckland.ac.nz/assets/central/about/equal-opportunities/policies-and-guidelines/undergraduate-targeted-admission-schemes/UTAS%20Policy%20-.pdf



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