Why We Still Need Affirmative Action

Removing race from the admissions equation forces schools to be blind to one of the key factors in people's lives

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A protestor in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on Oct. 10, 2012 in Washington.

Right now the Supreme Court holds the fate of affirmative action in its hands, and things don’t look good. Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin pits a school that believes affirmative action and diversity are key to its mission against a young white woman who failed to get into the university and blames that on the school’s use of race as a factor in the admissions process. Experienced court watchers are certain that Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor will side with the university and that Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts will side with Fisher. Once again, Justice Anthony Kennedy is the swing vote, and this time he appears to be leaning toward the conservatives. (Justice Elena Kagan recused herself because she worked on the case as solicitor general.)

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The end of affirmative action would have profound implications for higher education, leaving the U.S.’s top universities and graduate schools whiter. Because intergenerational mobility is tied to college attendance and joining America’s leadership is linked to admission to the top selective universities and graduate programs, the removal of affirmative action would only increase the already overwhelming whiteness of the upper echelon of American society. A study by Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger found that graduating from selective universities does not increase the earnings likelihood for middle-class whites but does significantly increase the earnings likelihood for black and Hispanic students and those from less affluent backgrounds, so affirmative action has a direct impact on the economic future of America. I have seen this at work in my own family.

I do not think I am any smarter or harder-working than my father, but I have outearned and outachieved him because he grew up during segregation while I grew up in the 1970s, during the early wave of diversity admissions at private schools that had not previously been open to black and Hispanic students. The greater educational and professional opportunities I had because of affirmative action multiplied my chances of success and gave my life a very different shape than my dad’s. Affirmative action provided us with a slight counterbalance to the powerful force called white privilege. Doing away with racial consideration would reduce the black and brown presence at selective schools and limit intergenerational class mobility even further. The problem is not that students who don’t belong are being admitted; it’s not that they can’t earn a place; it’s that blacks and Hispanics are losing the lifelong battle against the constantly accumulating benefits of white privilege. The places I studied and worked did not have a quota system but had an understanding that a diverse body is inherently better than a monolithic one for all involved. Affirmative action is not merely a corrective for past imbalance but also a way of ensuring that the American Dream is available to all.

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Removing race from the admissions equation forces schools to be blind to one of the key factors in people’s lives. Quota systems became unconstitutional years ago, so we are not talking about a mechanical relationship to race in admissions. There are no black slots in a class, nor should there be. At the University of Texas, as at many schools, race is one of a dozen or more factors considered in a holistic review of a student.

I cannot be seen through a color-blind lens and do not wish to be. Race is an important factor of who I am and how I am perceived, which is the case for all human beings, at least in America. And pretending not to see race doesn’t mean you don’t see it. The deans of Harvard and Yale’s law schools recently wrote a joint editorial saying, “We do not understand how a rule forbidding all consideration of race could possibly be enforced.” If an applicant mentions race, or if his or her race becomes clear during the application process, which often includes face-to-face meetings, then what charade should follow? It sounds like a sort of intellectual Prohibition would result, and as we all know, people drank during Prohibition; they just did it secretly.

(MORECounterpoint: How Affirmative Action Backfires at Universities)

Pushing race into the shadows is not the answer. Despite several decades of affirmative action, the black unemployment rate remains double the white unemployment rate, over 13% vs. under 7%. Blacks are, studies show, half as likely to get a job offer as whites presenting identical qualifications, and blacks with a clean record do no better in searching for low-wage work than whites with a felony conviction. Blacks remain severely underrepresented on campuses and in occupations requiring a degree. Yet in spite of all that, many white people have somehow come to view their race as the object of discrimination. A question Chief Justice Roberts asked repeatedly at the hearing in the Fisher case was, “When will we reach critical mass?” Meaning, how many black and Hispanic students will it take to satisfy the goal of diversity? Or, to put it more broadly, when will affirmative action no longer be needed? The question cannot be answered by any precise metric, but we are nowhere near that point.