The Complicated History of Affirmative Action: A Primer

7 stories that look at the policy’s complex past

Demonstrators outside the Supreme Court hold signs advocating for diversity.
Demonstrators take part in a rally at the Supreme Court deliberates over affirmative action at UT Ausin. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

The Justice Department is poised to investigate and potentially sue universities over admissions policies that it believes practice race-based discrimination, according to an internal document obtained Tuesday by The New York Times. The document invites interested lawyers to apply to participate in the initiative, which according to the Times will be overseen by the department’s political appointees.

The project’s objective, though not explicitly stated, is to clamp down on affirmative-action policies deemed to put white and Asian American students at a disadvantage. Numerous lawsuits have already accused colleges and universities of doing that, including the high-profile Fisher v. University of Texas. In that case, the Supreme Court upheld UT Austin’s program, which allows the consideration of race as one factor in admissions. Several pending lawsuits allege that the admissions practices at institutions such as Harvard and the University of California are discriminatory as well. The Supreme Court has previously ruled that the benefits of diversity justify the use of race as one consideration among many in what colleges often refer to as “holistic admissions.” That ruling also confirmed that “negative action”—such as racial quotas—is illegal.

In light of the Justice Department announcement, here’s a roundup of our best writing on affirmative action:

Who Is Most Disadvantaged by Affirmative Action?

Alia Wong | June 28, 2016

According to some activists, brilliant, accomplished, and well-rounded Asian students are consigned to gaming a system that’s rigged against them. Either that, or they have to prove themselves extra brilliant, extra accomplished, and extra well-rounded to ensure they’re on equal footing with non-Asian applicants. The premise is that affirmative action enables colleges and universities to discriminate against Asian applicants simply because there are so many of them on campus already. ...

But it’s far from clear that race-conscious admissions policies actually put the so-called “model minority” at a disadvantage. Nor is it clear that Asians and affirmative action are the foes that the headlines and lawsuits and petitions make them out to be.

Understanding the ‘Mismatch’ Debate

Mikhail Zinshteyn | March 24, 2016

The definitions that are central to the debate over racial preferences can overlap, but keeping them in order is key. Affirmative action means giving a group of students some kind of preference, like for students who are poor or come from certain zip codes. Racial preferences are just that—admissions policies that take into account an applicant’s race. The role of mismatch in this debate is to determine whether students who are admitted with the aid of admissions preferences—like race, income, or being related to alumni—perform well academically despite at times having lower grades and college-entrance test scores than the average scores for the incoming class of students at a particular college.

There are two more related concepts—overmatching and undermatching. An undermatched student is someone whose academic performance in high school exceeds those of fellow students at a particular college, suggesting that the student could have gotten into a more selective university but for various reasons did not. Overmatched students are the opposite—those whose high school performances suggest they may struggle in a more selective school and are better off at a less challenging college.

Diversity Debates: Income or Race-Based Affirmative Action?  

Emily Deruy | June 24, 2016

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Thursday to uphold affirmative action surprised legal experts, college presidents, and civil-rights activists. And although the ruling will let some colleges use race as a factor in admissions, that right is by no means guaranteed long term or across the board. ...

But would focusing on income really result in as much racial diversity as focusing on race? It’s a complicated question and different researchers have arrived at very different answers. The short answer seems to be: it depends. ...

While there’s clearly debate about the benefits and drawbacks of focusing on income in lieu of race, there’s general agreement among researchers that when students arrive on campuses because of affirmative action, whatever the kind, they are entirely capable of succeeding. Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that white students who score in the bottom half on tests have a graduation rate of 75 percent at the country’s most selective schools, while those in the top half have a graduation rate of 88 percent. For students of color, the graduation rate are 73 and 85 percent, respectively. The center also found that when average students attend the country’s best colleges, their rate of graduation goes up by 26 percent.

An Argument for Moving From Race to Class

Richard D. Kahlenberg | June 4, 2015

Still, critics ask: Is the country ready to move beyond racial preferences when skin color so patently continues to matter in American society? Is a nation in which the headlines are dominated by the disgraceful deaths of unarmed black men—from Eric Garner to Walter Scott to Freddie Gray—really in a position to get beyond race? Not if moving beyond race means repealing civil-rights laws. Explicit race-based laws still play a crucial role in fighting ongoing discrimination in housing, employment, education, voting, and the criminal-justice system, as will police body cameras and more resources for civil-rights enforcement.

Racial preferences in education are a different matter. Factoring in skin color at select private colleges is worth the equivalent of a 310 SAT-point boost (on a 400-1600-point scale) for black students over white students, according to one study. As Johnson, King, and Moynihan recognized, class-based alternatives to these programs don’t ignore the continuing role of race; they leverage the reality of discrimination to promote the kind of racial and ethnic diversity that America’s colleges need. ...

The attacks on racial affirmative action, including those from voters and from conservative judges, may represent an opportunity to pick up the progressive thread of thought first developed a half century ago by Johnson, King, Moynihan, and Rustin, filling a need for economic affirmative action that has only grown stronger over time.

Can Outreach Programs Do the Work of Affirmative Action?

Brenda Iasevoli | February 28, 2014

The Early Academic Outreach Program aims to provide poor students with the benefits equivalent to those enjoyed by their affluent counterparts: individualized college counseling, help filling out applications and financial aid forms, free PSAT and SAT prep, campus visits, even enrichment classes on Saturdays and during the summer. …

Gandara’s upcoming book on UCLA’s outreach programs aims to offer EAOP as an alternative model to the use of affirmative action for universities everywhere, so that students like Membreno don’t lose their way. The model is simple: share the steps for getting to college, and help students take the steps one by one. Advisers say students can use a little reassurance along the way, too.

From time to time, Membreno returns to her old middle school in central LA to encourage students by her own example.

“I wasn’t the best student,” she tells them. “I could be a troublemaker. I could get loud sometimes. But I still went to college. So can you.”

How the Fisher Case Reignited a Long-Simmering Controversy

Sarah Garland | October 10, 2012

In 2008, two young women with similar academic records applied to the University of Texas at Austin for spots in the freshman class. One of the women, Abigail Fisher, was rejected. The other, Tedra Jacobs, was accepted. Fisher is white. Jacobs is black. Fisher sued, saying the university's admission process was discriminatory. Now, her case is before the Supreme Court, which will hear arguments today. The decision, which may be issued as late as next summer, could set new limits on the use of racial preferences in higher education, or even ban affirmative action outright.

"It could have been me who took her spot," says Jacobs. She is not apologetic, and neither is the university. Admitting students like Jacobs through affirmative action is part of the school's strategy to ensure that that the next generation of leaders is more representative of the nation's diversity than the last one. (There may be a black president in the White House, but there are no African Americans and only two Hispanics in the Senate.)

The court's decision in Fisher v. University of Texas could deal a major blow to efforts to promote racial diversity in education. In a 2007 decision, the court already significantly restricted the use of race in elementary and secondary school assignments; now, only a handful of districts around the nation actively attempt to integrate their schools, and racial separation in schools is back to levels not seen since the 1950s. The decision to take up the Fisher case suggests the justices may be willing to reverse precedents in a 2003 University of Michigan case and the 1978 Bakke decision, which both upheld the use of race in college admissions.

Does Affirmative Action Hurt Minority Students?

Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr. | October 2, 2012

The single biggest problem in this system—a problem documented by a vast and growing array of research—is the tendency of large preferences to boomerang and harm their intended beneficiaries. Large preferences often place students in environments where they can neither learn nor compete effectively—even though these same students would thrive had they gone to less competitive but still quite good schools.

We refer to this problem as "mismatch," a word that largely explains why, even though blacks are more likely to enter college than are whites with similar backgrounds, they will usually get much lower grades, rank toward the bottom of the class, and far more often drop out. Because of mismatch, racial preference policies often stigmatize minorities, reinforce pernicious stereotypes, and undermine the self-confidence of beneficiaries, rather than creating the diverse racial utopias so often advertised in college campus brochures.