The Case for Affirmative Action

As the federal stance on affirmative action changes, a look at what the policy has accomplished, and why it’s still relevant today

July 11, 2018
Harvard gate

For decades, affirmative action has been a deeply integral — and deeply debated — aspect of college admissions in the United States. The idea that colleges can (and in some cases, should) consider race as a factor in whom they decide to admit has been welcomed by many as a solution to racial inequities and divides. But others have dismissed the policy as outdated in our current climate, and at times scorned it as a form of reverse racial discrimination.

That latter stance gained a much stronger footing last week when the Departments of Education and Justice officially withdrew Obama-era guidance on affirmative action, signaling that the Trump administration stands behind race-blind admissions practices.

We spoke with Natasha Warikoo, an expert on the connection between college admissions and racial diversity, about what affirmative action has accomplished in the past 50 years, and whether this shift in guidance will severely affect admissions policies in the years to come. We share her perspectives here.

The purpose of affirmative action:

Affirmative action was developed in the 1960s to address racial inequality and racial exclusion in American society. Colleges and universities wanted to be seen as forward-thinking on issues of race.

Then, in the late 1970s, affirmative action went to the United States Supreme Court. There, the only justification accepted, by Justice Powell, was the compelling state interest in a diverse student body in which everyone benefits from a range of perspectives in the classroom.

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Today, when colleges talk about affirmative action, they rarely mention the issue of inequality, or even of a diverse leadership. Instead, they focus on the need for a diverse student body in which everyone benefits from a range of perspectives in the classroom.

Colleges have fully taken on this justification — to the point that, today, they rarely mention the issue of inequality, or even of a diverse leadership, perhaps because they’re worried about getting sued. But this justification leads to what I call in my book a “diversity bargain,” in that many white students see the purpose of affirmative action as to benefit them, through a diverse learning environment. This justification, which ignored equity, leads to some unexpected, troubling expectations on the part of white students.

What affirmative action has accomplished in terms of diversity on college campuses:

William Bowen and Derek Bok’s classic book The Shape of the River systematically looks at the impact of affirmative action by exploring decades of data from a group of selective colleges. They find that black students who probably benefited from affirmative action — because their achievement data is lower than the average student at their colleges — do better in the long-run than their peers who went to lower-status universities and probably did not benefit from affirmative action. The ones who benefited are more likely to graduate college and to earn professional degrees, and they have higher incomes.

So affirmative action acts as an engine for social mobility for its direct beneficiaries. This in turn leads to a more diverse leadership, which you can see steadily growing in the United States.

But what about other students — whites and those from a higher economic background? Decades of research in higher education show that classmates of the direct beneficiaries also benefit. These students have more positive racial attitudes toward racial minorities, they report greater cognitive capacities, they even seem to participate more civically when they leave college.

None of these changes would have happened without affirmative action. States that have banned affirmative action can show us that. California, for example, banned affirmative action in the late 1990s, and at the University of California, Berkeley, the percentage of black undergraduates has fallen from 6 percent in 1980 to only 3 percent in 2017

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Decades of research in higher education show that classmates of the direct beneficiaries of affirmative also benefit. They have more positive racial attitudes toward racial minorities, they report greater cognitive capacities, they even seem to participate more civically when they leave college.

What the Trump administration's reversal of guidance on affirmative action means for admissions practices:

The guidance is simply guidance — it’s not legally binding. It indicates what the administration thinks, and how it might act. In that sense, this guidance is not surprising — many would have guessed that Trump and his team believe universities should avoid taking race into consideration in admissions. Indeed, the Department of Justice under Trump last summer already reopened a case filed under the Obama administration claiming racial discrimination in college admissions.

I hope that colleges and universities will stand behind affirmative action, given its many benefits. The U.S. Supreme Court has decided in favor of affirmative action multiple times — it is settled law.

However — the decision in Fisher v. Texas made clear that colleges would no longer be afforded good faith understanding that they have tried all other race-neutral alternatives before turning to affirmative action. In other words, if asked in court, colleges need to be able to show that they tried all other race-neutral alternatives to creating a diverse student body, and those alternatives failed. This means that affirmative action has already been “narrowly tailored” to the “compelling state interest” of a diverse student body — required by anti-discrimination laws. Ironically, race-based decisions come under scrutiny because of anti-discrimination laws designed to protect racial minorities; these laws are now being used to make claims about supposed anti-white discrimination when policies attempt to address racial inequality.

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College and Career Diversity and Inclusion Education Policy