Does Affirmative Action Have an Expiration Date? Your Thoughts

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

Last week, in the wake of the SCOTUS decision upholding the use of racial preferences at UT-Austin, I posed a question to readers who back affirmative action: When, under what standards or metric, should the policy be phased out in the future, if ever?

For her part, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, in her pro-AA opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), famously stated that “We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest [in student body diversity] approved today.” See below for a 2006 policy paper that estimated whether that 25-year standard is attainable.

But first, here’s a response from a reader who seems to take the “I know it when I see it” standard popularized by Justice Potter:

I think when affirmative action should end, we’ll all know it should end.

Only a generation ago for many of us, the idea of someone being a doctor or lawyer wasn’t realistic; it was an almost completely alien idea for our parents and an almost a complete uncertainty for our grandparents. Diversity is codeword now for affirmative action, but it’s more than that. It’s often mocked, but it’s an ideal that a truly free country, the people at the top will match the people in society. If that discrepancy isn’t fixed, it’s a clear stain on the idea that all men are created equal. [CB: That idea was stained from the beginning, of course, in a very different way.] How can we as a people proclaim that America is free land of equal opportunity if people of darker skin are continually worse economically and socially?

Update from a reader, who snarks: “I agree that Korean college students should atone for the sins of the South,” suggesting that Asian American students are disadvantaged by AA policies. (For more on that aspect of the debate, see Alia’s newest piece, “Asian Americans and the Future of Affirmative Action.”)

Another reader points to the existence of private racial jokes as the reason to continue AA in perpetuity:

Perhaps if all Southern land owners had their property confiscated and redistributed to slaves after the Civil War, then we would not have had segregation and the generational problems of racism we do today. However, that’s not what happened, and affirmative action should continue until, for instance, folks like Meg Whitman’s racist son calling people ni**ers in public is no longer a common occurrence. [CB: This claim apparently stems from anonymous rumors posted by Gawker in 2009.] As long as the public face of white people is to smile while cracking racist jokes in private, there should be affirmative action.

Update from a reader on that excerpt: “No. You are demanding perfection from all people at all times in all places.” This next reader makes “a key distinction”:

Affirmative action is NOT about equality but rather about equity. Equality is about treating everyone the same, whereas equity is about meeting folks where they are at.

And face it: Today in America your race and class (and gender) intersect in troublesome ways that dictate your ability to earn in a lifetime and what type of education you will achieve. Off the top of my head, HBCUs are 70 percent women. [CB: Actually the best number I could find was 63 percent, in 2013, up from 53 percent in 1976.] Black men just aren’t in higher education. There are a lot of social issues preventing this, but there are strongly inequitable patterns that persist among racial and ethnic groups today. We are a long way off from parity.

I think the rush to judgement on affirmative action is that the piece of the pie feels a teensy bit smaller for white, cis-men. And frankly, without diversity and equity, we are a long way off from excellence in a civil society that holds itself to be the best in the world. Democracy and its engagement thereof cannot exist to its fullest extent without diversity and equity.

So I guess affirmative action should end when there is equity, but I also don’t believe our system allows us to be equitable. But that’s another post for another day.

Update from a pro-AA reader who bristles at the image seen above:

That image illustrates the worst possible misunderstanding of AA—that it’s about giving unqualified people a leg up into institutions they are not qualified for. AA is about letting fully qualified people into an institution whose only block to entry is some prejudice towards them.

I’m for AA. I just think that it should be tweaked and updated to some degree. Exactly how I don’t know, but I’d like it to lean more towards seeing the socio-economic identities of those we’re trying to help, rather than just race/gender—which, due to the successes of AA, has become a bit of an anachronism.

I also think we need to be honest about what the controversy is about: It sacrifices individuals of a certain Group to benefit other individuals of another Group, because we are concerned about larger lack of representation of the latter Group. But it does choose winners and losers based on race and sex. It may be for high-minded purposes, but it does just that.

Update from a reader who takes issue with that one:

“AA is about letting fully qualified people into an institution whose only block to entry is some prejudice towards them.” That is just empirically not true. At least in college admissions, the preferences given are enormous—so large that colleges fight to the last to avoid disclosing just how large they are. According to the LA Times, citing a Princeton Study, “African Americans received a ‘bonus’ of 230 [SAT] points… Hispanics received a bonus of 185 points… Asian Americans, [college prep entrepreneur Ann Lee] says, are penalized by 50 points.”

230 SAT points on the 1600 point scale is a staggering bonus—not just a finger on the scale, but an anvil. To claim two candidates whose SAT scores differ by 230 or 185 points are equally qualified is extraordinarily disingenuous.

From Dave, a reader in Texas:

To put it simplistically, of course affirmative action should end, but not until the conditions that cause it to be necessary are gone. In other words, not for a long damned time.

Update from a reader who replies to Dave:

Unfortunately, those “conditions” keep getting redefined. Apparently, everyone is a racist now, even if we don’t know it.

This next reader would probably agree with that sentiment, and overall he thinks AA has become too institutionalized and incentivized to ever go away:

I suspect that affirmative action—at least the philosophy behind it—is so firmly embedded in our society that we’ll never be rid of it. Apparently we’re all ok with the idea of a permanent subclass within society that simply can’t succeed on their own without assistance. Now there is an entire industry based on affirmative action including specialists in AA law, AA HR compliance, support groups, housing specialists, finance, and even politicians. When you make your living working with affirmative action, the entire country looks like a klan rally.

If you want to jump into this debate, please email hello@.

Lastly, here’s that study I mentioned earlier—from Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy in 2006—that tried to game out Justice O’Connor’s hope/prediction of AA lasting for another 25 years. From the abstract:

We conclude that under reasonable assumptions, African American students will continue to be substantially underrepresented among the most qualified college applicants for the foreseeable future. The magnitude of the underrepresentation is likely to shrink—in our most optimistic simulation, somewhat over half of the gap that would be opened by the elimination of race preferences will be closed by the projected improvement in black achievement.

Still, it seems unlikely that today’s level of racial diversity will be achievable without some form of continuing affirmative action. If the Supreme Court follows through with O’Connor’s stated intention to ban affirmative action in 25 years, and if colleges do not adjust in other ways (such as reducing the importance of numerical qualifications to admissions), we project substantial declines in the representation of African Americans among admitted students at selective institutions.