Affirmative action: helping hand or harmful measure?

Two contributors consider the usefulness of affirmative action programs

Some groups still lack representation in academic settings — is affirmative action the answer?
Some groups still lack representation in academic settings — is affirmative action the answer?

Not the answer to minority empowerment

Kiera Liblik, ArtSci ’18

Many Canadian medical schools are implementing programs to increase the enrollment of students from minority groups (click for definition) in an attempt to over-correct a historical lack of representation. Unfortunately, this approach is like fighting fire with fire — it’s generally ineffective and only causes more damage.

It’s important that all applicants feel that they have equal opportunity of admission, which is a goal of these quotas. However, while the intention may be good, the action can have negative effects.

In an attempt to be accepted into medical school at all costs, Vijay Chokal-Ingam (brother of Mindy Kaling) manipulated his application to appear as an affirmative action applicant. He altered his appearance and led admissions committees to believe that he was African-American. To his surprise, when he applied with his original and altered application, he was only accepted when medical schools assumed he was black.

Vijay Chokal-Ingam also noticed that during his interview as an affirmative action student a lot of emphasis was put on his race. After eventually dropping out of medical school and becoming a business school admissions councillor, Chokal-Ingram writes about his continued struggle with the fact that “more exclusion in the form of affirmative action is not the best solution.”

The standards set for post-secondary program applications should be consistent to ensure a fair chance for each student. Two applicants with the same qualifications should be treated equally.

There are adverse effects for minority students who are accepted to post-graduate schools that boast affirmative action programs. Admission quotas may foster feelings of invalidity in students who question whether they were accepted based on their identity instead of merit.

Additionally, if students graduate from schools that advertise initiatives to recruit minorities, it may affect how they’re perceived by future employers and peers. It can be harmful to a career in a highly competitive field if people believe an individual was hired or accepted into a program due to minority status.

No one should be made to feel that their successes are invalidated because their ethnicity or socio-economic status represents a minority. If anything, the approach to ensuring equality should be to focus solely on the calibre of the application instead of the background of the applicant. As well, there should continue to be scholarships to help students who may not be able to afford medical school on their own.

Additionally, the funds allocated to achieving enrollment targets should instead be used to implement programs that encourage people of all backgrounds to pursue competitive programs such as law or medicine.

Empowering minorities should be the goal when trying to improve representation in academic programs. Skewing the application process ultimately causes more harm than good for all parties involved and undermines the validity of the hard work of applicants.

Kiera is a second-year Life Sciences major.


One good way to ameliorate the harm of oppression

Meera Govindasamy, ArtSci ’16

Affirmative action programs are necessary steps towards realizing Canadian values of equity. Rather than suggest all people be treated the same, equity aims to create a more even playing field, which means addressing existing barriers and historic exclusion.

Consequently, the alternative to affirmative action isn’t meritocracy. Dismissing affirmative action means accepting the status quo of white-male dominance and denying the historic and ongoing disadvantage of marginalized groups in Canada.

In the university context, affirmative action includes providing special opportunities to university applicants from underrepresented groups. Beyond simply reserving admission spots for marginalized students, affirmative action can include monetary grants, on-campus supports and efforts to recruit more applicants from specific populations.

Because there are so many diverse forms affirmative action can take, it makes it difficult to reject such initiatives in their entirety. This conversation is further complicated by the need to think differently about distinct groups who experience oppression in varied ways.

In the Canadian context, Indigenous students represent one case for special consideration by universities. According to Statistics Canada, less than 10 per cent of Indigenous Canadians had university degrees in 2011. While this is an improvement from previous years, researchers at Western University found that the gap in post-secondary educational attainment between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities remains today.

Without better access to university credentials, Indigenous peoples struggle in the job market and remain economically marginalized. As the perpetrators of several hundred years of colonial violence, it’s essential that the Canadian state take responsibility for Indigenous peoples’ poor standard of living and underrepresentation in university programs. Affirmative action is a way for institutions to address the underrepresentation of certain groups whose marginality in society is the result of mistreatment by the Canadian government and its institutions.

Despite the impressive gains women have made in academic enrollment, a significant gender-based wage gap persists. In 2014, women only represented 20.8 per cent of membership on the boards of directors for companies listed in the Canadian Stock index.

Given this disparity of wealth and power in Canadian society, it’s important to increase women’s enrolment numbers in programs that lead to high-income jobs because women’s concentration in lower-paid occupations is partly responsible for the income gap.

Providing special accommodations to women in university will act as a pre-emptive defense against employment barriers they’ll face in the future.

When it comes to affirmative action for non-Indigenous members of racialized groups, it’s worth considering Queen’s in particular as an institution with a concerning lack of diversity. According to Queen’s voluntary Applicant Equity Census, 71.5 per cent of Queen’s students in 2013 didn’t count themselves as visible minorities. Amongst the remaining 28.5 per cent of non-white students, some visible minorities report experiences of both overt racism and subtler racist micro-aggressions. Improving the representation of racialized students would be a step towards overcoming the university’s reputation as a Eurocentric and often racist place to study.  

A 2010 Maclean’s article suggests that while some universities are becoming “to o Asian”, Queen’s, Western and McGill are “where all the white kids go.” Further, a 2004 report by Frances Henry, in which 270 Queen’s faculty members were surveyed, concluded that there exists an engrained culture of whiteness at Queen’s that causes feelings of “otherness” and exclusion from mainstream University happenings.

These experiences of racism took several forms, including hiring practices, Eurocentric curriculum and challenges to the authority of racialized professors by their white students.

Post-secondary education has the potential to improve the opportunities of marginalized communities in Canadian society, but only if they’re given a fair chance to make it to university in the first place.

Meera Govindasamy is a fifth-year Sociology major.


Affirmative Action, point/counterpoint, race, School Applications

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