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We Can’t End Affirmative Action Without Fixing Racial Biases in Education

On January 24, the Supreme Court announced that it will hear challenges to affirmative action policies at two major schools: Harvard and the University of North Carolina. The cases will be heard in the session that begins next October, with a decision likely by June 2023 (CNN). The court’s conservative supermajority is expected to rule in favor of the plaintiffs, which would reduce the number of Black and Latinx students at nearly every selective college and graduate school (NYTimes). This move follows several recent challenges to similar policies at other major universities. 

The idea behind affirmative action is simple: create rules and regulations that require organizations to proactively pursue equitable practices re: hiring, acceptance rates, etc. This means excluding race, ethnicity, and gender from the selection process and choosing the best candidate, regardless of identity. But it also means including race, ethnicity, and gender in the selection process to ensure a diverse and equitable community. This creates a paradox – how do we equitably prevent racial discrimination without reinforcing it at the same time? Most Americans both support affirmative action programs for racial minorities and oppose hiring decisions that take racial backgrounds into consideration (Gallup).

TAKE ACTION

Follow conversations on affirmative action and how they impact your alma mater and/or schools in your community.

Ensure inclusivity efforts at your company or organization for all marginalized groups.

Consider: What policies or practices positively influenced your educational experience? How would your educational journey have differed if you had a different racial/ethnic identity?

Before we dive into the nuances, let’s explore why affirmative action is relevant to education. In America, communities of color have had significantly fewer educational opportunities than their white peers. From inequitable public school funding to redlining, the school-to-prison pipeline to lack of representation in staff and administration, students of color face challenges to equitable educational opportunities. (See Brookings for a quick overview, and visit our archives for newsletters related to education). Because of these factors, it’s no surprise that students are increasingly attending racially segregated schools 65 years after Brown vs. Board of Education (Vox).

Historically, access to quality higher education in the U.S. has been reserved for the wealthy and privileged. These families have more opportunities to secure a spot for their children at prestigious universities (The Atlantic). Affirmative action at universities is designed to counteract these systemic disparities against marginalized groups, create an equal playing field, and boost inclusivity. Studies show that students who have benefited from affirmative action are more likely to graduate college, earn professional degrees, and make higher incomes than peers who haven’t. Affirmative action fosters necessary social mobility for disadvantaged populations (Harvard).

Critics of affirmative action in schools argue that it takes away spaces from white students who deserve the spaces as much, or more so, than marginalized groups. Ironically, the people who have benefited the most from affirmative action have historically been white women. When affirmative action was institutionalized in 1961 by President Kennedy, it focused on “race” and “color,” a direct response to the growing civil rights movement of the era (Vox). In the late 1960s, the Women’s Movement encouraged President Johnson to amend the order to include gender. After two decades of affirmative action in the private sector, the California Senate Government Organization Committee found that white women held more managerial jobs (57,250) than African Americans (10,500), Latinxs (19,000), and Asian Americans (24,600) (Vox). Despite this, most white women are in opposition to affirmative action, and most cases brought against affirmative action initiatives are led by white women (Vox).

But these particular cases were launched by Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), which argues that affirmative action hurts Asian American students. Affirmative action is intended to support people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds. However, there are concerns about how Asian Americans are treated based on the “model minority myth,” a stereotype suggesting that all Asian Americans are smart, hard-working, and likely to be successful (Wiley). Schools may cap the number of Asian American recipients to make way for other marginalized groups, or hold Asian Americans to an unfair higher standard (WGBH). This is called “racial balancing,” and harms everyone, including Asian Americans. It reinforces stereotypes and treats Asian Americans as a homogenous group (American Progress). Bhutanese and Burmese high school graduation rates are some of the lowest of any nationality or ethnic group in the U.S. (California Law Review). Data shows that college attendance rates vary drastically among Asian ethnicities, so it’s crucial to hold affirmative action programs accountable for how they can fuel these disparities (American Progress). 

“A federal court found that forbidding Harvard from considering race in its admissions program could ‘reduce African American representation at Harvard from 14% to 6% and Hispanic representation from 14% to 9%’” (Vox).  A similar policy at Yale was deemed discriminatory by the Trump administration in 2020, but the lawsuit was dropped by the Biden administration last year (NYTimes). Asian Americans Advancing Justice, an affiliation of five independent Asian American civil rights organizations, published a statement reiterating their support for race-conscious programs, stating that they “reject the use of Asian Americans as proxies” (AAJC website).

Some people have argued for shifting affirmative action from looking at race towards addressing class, supporting economically disadvantaged students across race and gender divides (The Atlantic). Others suggest that we need to shift away from this “quota” mentality to “outcomes” for systemically marginalized groups: less diversity, more reparations (The Atlantic). Whatever the case, it’s clear we need a more equitable solution. Part of that needs to be investing in solving the systemic inequities that created this issue.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Yesterday, the Supreme Court announced that it will hear challenges to affirmative action policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina.

Affirmative action increases opportunities for Black and Latinx students. It can also support the “model minority” myth if Asian Americans are viewed as a homogeneous group.

Dismantling affirmative action can reduce collective accountability for the inclusion of marginalized communities.

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