Reporter's Notebook

The End of Affirmative Action?
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Readers debate the merits of affirmative action following the December 2015 oral arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas (which ended in a 4-3 ruling upholding AA in June 2016). Contribute your own views via

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'Affirmative Action Seemed to Tarnish My Achievements'

The most compelling email I’ve seen in our discussion so far:

I am a black student who went to an Ivy League School for undergrad and now applying to graduate school. I am very split about affirmative action. On one hand, I hate it. I am never recognized for any of my accomplishments, never given the respect I feel is due because of affirmative action. When I got into my Ivy League undergrad (and unlike Abigail Fisher, I was actually in the top 10 percent of my class when I was applying to college). I took the second hardest course load in my school, had a 2250 SAT, and pretty much knocked the Verbal section out of the park by getting a cool 800.

But the same classmates I went to school with, spoke to, and beat in competitions grumbled behind my back: “It was affirmative action.” That cut me deeply in a way that I have never forgiven them.

This reader, Athena Kifah, isn’t so sure:

“In the weird constitutional language of affirmative action,” writes Garrett Epps in The Atlantic today, “no one is allowed to say what they really mean.”

Past judicial rulings have allowed for a holistic approach in college admissions based on the abstract idea that a diverse learning community is in the interest of all students. But this is not how many people view affirmative action; they see it as compensatory, a necessary step towards erasing systemic and historical disadvantages that have prevented minority individuals—in particular, Black and African-Americans and Native Americans—from achieving the same levels of monetary success as their White counterparts.

But while this idea of atoning for past sins through affirmative action is logical and appealing in theory, its implementation would be problematic. How does one determine which minorities have been systemically or historically disadvantaged? Would this exclude any Black individual who has immigrated to the U.S. since ... when? After slavery? After Jim Crow? After the Civil Rights era? Where do we draw the divide in our timeline to establish who has faced enough generations of discrimination to be owed something by the U.S.? And how would such a lineage, if specified, ever be proven? By this metric, virtually no new immigrants would meet the criteria to be a recipient of affirmative action.

I agree, as I venture most would, that increasing the range of perspectives within any learning space is beneficial to learning. But what does that mean? How is that being achieved? Is the highest metric of “diversity” strictly racial? Experiences within race can be extremely varied, in both White and non-White communities. There are ranges of privilege, wealth, and educational attainment within each community, metrics that also contribute significantly to what “diversity” a student might bring to the table.

I believe it is also worth noting, particularly in this political climate, that Middle Eastern and North African people are all census designated as White.

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.