Reporter's Notebook

The End of Affirmative Action?
Show Description +

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 hello@theatlantic.com.

Show None Newer Notes

Taking More Action Before Affirmative Action

A reader writes:

I’m a female black professional who, by any objective measure, earned spots in honors programs and a well-regarded university for graduate school. While I would not say I have been “shamed” by affirmative action, as one reader suggests, the practice has at various points intensified my experience of impostor syndrome.

For instance, I recall having secured an internship with a prestigious institution and sneaking a peek at the resumes of others who had applied. I was surprised by the amount of relief I felt in seeing that my resume was, in fact, stronger than the others. The institution also had an internship program reserved for minorities and I had begun to be bothered by the possibility that perhaps I couldn’t with confidence say that I was just as capable as others who had been hired.  

Aside from any fleeting doubts I might have about my own accomplishments, I do tend to think that the focus on preserving affirmative action in college admissions distracts from the more fundamental problem, which is that the majority of failing public elementary and secondary schools in the U.S. are composed of minority (black and Hispanic) students.

Back in December, when the Supreme Court held oral arguments for Fisher v. University of Texas, we started a robust reader debate on affirmative action in Notes. (You can peruse it from the beginning here.) In a 4-3 decision this morning, the court upheld UT-Austin’s program for increasing student diversity partly based on race. The ruling is a “substantial defeat” for opponents of affirmative action, says Garrett Epps. On the deciding swing vote:

For the first time in his judicial career, Kennedy gave his approval to a race-based affirmative-action program. And he did so in an opinion that clearly reaffirmed the constitutional rationale for such programs first enunciated by Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. in the 1978 case of Regents of University of California v. Bakke and reaffirmed by the court majority in the 2003 case of Grutter v. Bollinger.

Yet: “Kennedy was careful to clothe his opinion in narrow language that appeared to leave larger questions open. Thus, a nine-justice court (if such a unicorn is ever found in the wild) might one day reconsider the issue.” That would be just fine with this reader:

We still need affirmative action right now. BUT if we ever want to gain true equality, benefits based on race will have to go, just the same as racial degradation needs to go. Nobody can deny that someday soon affirmative action will be gone.

When would that be—by what metric? If you’re a backer of affirmative action and want to tackle that question, please drop us a note. This reader suspects the policy will never be phased out:

AA used to be justified as a tool to achieve equality, or to redress past wrongs. Now the justification has shifted: It is now a tool used to make sure that classes are diverse, regardless of whether all the applicants are on a level playing field. This ruling ensures that affirmative action is now a permanent fixture of American colleges.

But this next reader points to where AA is not a fixture at all:

I’m so glad I live in a state like California where we understand that race should not matter in college admissions [due to Proposition 209, approved by votes in 1996]. And with a colorblind system, we have a majority non-white state college system. The California experience pretty much shows that affirmative action is unnecessary in getting non-white minorities into college.

Here’s a statistical chronology of that “majority non-white state college system”:

Wikipedia

Since 2010—the last year on that chart—another ethnic group has now surpassed White. According to a 2014 piece from US News & World Report:

In California, the state’s flagship, nine-school University of California system announced an eye-opening milestone: that it has admitted more Latino students (29 percent) than whites (27 percent) for the 2014 academic year.

Update from another reader in California:

On the surface, Kennedy’s opinion seems to make sense, as each school can best decide the makeup of the institution and can include race as a factor to address diversity at their particular school. But this decision also brings up some troubling questions. What about diversity of religion? Or age? Females have surpassed males in most undergrad programs. [From that 2014 US News piece: “Women now making up about 57 percent of all college students, an exponential gain compared to around 40 percent in the 1970s, according to the NCES.”] Should being a man be of benefit to the admissions process? Political bent? Sexual orientation?

I don’t know that there’s a slippery slope, but it seems to me that there certainly could be.

    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.