Affirmative Action for Four Centuries?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Richard Kahlenberg wrote a great piece for us yesterday about the future of affirmative action and “how a conservative decision at the Supreme Court could lead to a liberal outcome”—how striking down explicitly racial preferences in college admissions could lead, paradoxically, to even better results for racial and economic diversity. Here’s Kahlenberg:

My Century Foundation colleague Halley Potter has found that in the 10 states where racial affirmative action was dropped [because of state bans], eight states adopted class-based affirmative action programs; eight expanded financial-aid budgets; three rewarded students with the top GPA in each high school and downplayed standardized tests scores; and two adopted stronger programs to allow students to transfer from community colleges to four-year institutions. In three states, individual universities dropped legacy preferences for the children of alumni that tend to benefit white and wealthy students. Not only did these programs usually produce as much racial diversity as did racial preferences, they also jumpstarted social mobility, new evidence suggests.

The Supreme Court case at issue for Kahlenberg is Fisher v. University of Texas II, which had oral arguments today. The transcript was just released and is available here.

From a reader who is very sympathetic to the idea of affirmation action:

But the thing about affirmative action, above all else, is that it must be a temporary thing.

I for one believe that there are institutional effects of centuries of racism, and that this can create a structure that long outlives the de jure manifestations. So I do not reject the basic premise. You cannot easily erase the racism of four centuries in four decades. After all, we had a (sometimes brutal) form of affirmative action for European Americans for generations, informally and formally. The present social structure didn’t just “happen.”

That being said, no bone is broken forever. Therefore, no crutch is needed forever. I have yet to see any definite goals with regards to when AA will no longer be needed, and plans on how to make those goals come to fruition. An affirmative action that is billed as mere retribution for past wrongs, or one that is simply indefinite, will do nothing but breed resentment. And rightfully so. You will always have those folks who get agitated at the sight of anything deemed to celebrate/help minorities, from MLK Day on down. But that doesn’t change the fact that you can’t have AA forever. And how you do AA while it does exist matters. Proponents often fail on both counts.

Another reader:

Racial discrimination in admissions is morally wrong because it is based on nothing but the color of one’s skin. Class-based preferences help students who have additional obstacles in their way that other students do not. It makes absolutely no sense to discriminate against anyone by race, but it makes even less sense to discriminate against a disadvantaged White or Asian student in favor of a Black or Latino child of wealth and privilege, as the system does now.

What do you think? Email