Is Affirmative Action On Its Last Legs? Should It Be?


December 9, 2015

By Mary Nguyen Barry and Michael Dannenberg

In the heat of smoldering racial unrest focused on the use of force by police and culture on college campuses, the Supreme Court hears a case today that presents an opportunity to roll back consideration of race in college admissions and either implicitly or explicitly promote class-based affirmative action as an alternative.


WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 10: Protesters hold signs in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on October 10, 2012 in Washington, DC. The high court is scheduled to hear arguments on Fisher V. University of Texas at Austin and are tasked with ruling on whether the university's consideration of race in admissions is constitutional.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC – OCTOBER 10: Protesters hold signs in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on October 10, 2012 in Washington, DC. The high court is scheduled to hear arguments on Fisher V. University of Texas at Austin and are tasked with ruling on whether the university’s consideration of race in admissions is constitutional. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)


Related: What are the #BlackonCampus Protests Really About?


Should it? Our answer is an unequivocal “No.” To be clear, most experts expect the Court to focus narrowly on the specific admission policy at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin – and not affirmative action writ large. But others see the Fisher case as presenting an opening through which a class-based affirmative action system could be embraced to replace one based on race. This improved policy they argue would kill two birds with one stone: it would serve to promote both racial and economic diversity.

That suggestion certainly is seductive on its face. We at Education Reform Now, after all, are strong proponents of improved socioeconomic diversity in our nation’s colleges. But we submit that class-based affirmative action cannot by itself be a full replacement for racial preferences in college admissions. We need both.

Here’s why.

Proponents of class-based affirmative action make a clear value judgment that advancing low-income students is a more worthy goal than doing the same for middle-income or wealthy minority students. As Rick Kahlenberg recently wrote for the Century Foundation, the “Achilles Heel of affirmative action is that it often benefits well-off minority students. President Barack Obama recognized this when he said that his own daughters do not deserve affirmative action preferences.”

But as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes for The Atlantic, “Whatever the Obama children achieve, it will be evidence of their family’s singular perseverance, not of broad equality.” And as Coates says, “In the contest of upward mobility, Barack and Michelle Obama have won. But they’ve won by being twice as good – and enduring twice as much.” Let’s not forget, after all, that even the President, as a function of being a black man, has been mistaken for a valet and a waiter at a restaurant.

Those small brushes may seem trivial on the surface. But any minority member’s experience with our society’s overt or covert discrimination practices in housing, mortgages, insurance, student loans, and employment reminds us that at best, any minority success against the odds is a worthy consideration in college admissions; at worst, any minority success may be fleeting and subject to reversal by regressive policies or practices – and as such, we should continue to protect minority gains with race-based affirmative action in education.


Related: How the Racial Bias of Zero-Tolerance Follows Students Into College


As Ta-Nehisi Coates says once again:

To ignore the fact that one of the oldest republics in the world was erected on a foundation of white supremacy, to pretend that the problems of a dual society are the same as the problems of unregulated capitalism, is to cover the sin of national plunder with the sin of national lying. The lie ignores the fact that reducing American poverty and ending white supremacy are not the same. The lie ignores the fact that closing the “achievement gap” will do nothing to close the “injury gap,” in which black college graduates still suffer higher unemployment rates than white college graduates, and black job applicants without criminal records enjoy roughly the same chance of getting hired as white applicants with criminal records.

In short, there are two major forces at work: poverty and racism. Poor minority students have both forces working against them. By all means, we should support policies that boost the enrollment and completion of low-income students of color. Poor white students have a force working against them. Wealthy minority students have a different force working against them. Both poor white students and wealthy minority students, in addition to poor minority students, deserve special consideration in college admissions.

The University of Texas at Austin (UT) admissions policy at issue before the Supreme Court today is designed to counter both phenomena. UT’s primary admission policy – through which 75 percent of the class is admitted – confers admission to the top 10 percent of students in every high school class to any public UT campus. UT then admits the remaining 25 percent of its class through a more holistic admissions assessment, where race is given a bonus factor in order to attract wealthier students of color who would add “diversity within diversity,” and dismantle stereotypes and perceptions about black and Hispanic students.


Related: Our Fisher vs. UT Affirmative Action Argument


This first track (the top 10% plan) produces a degree of racial and economic diversity. But that degree rests on de facto education and residential segregation in Texas. In effect, the students of color who are admitted via the 10% plan are predominantly low-income. That means that while the 10% plan produces a degree of diversity, it doesn’t achieve enough. The 10% plan doesn’t produce true student body diversity much less evidence an institution’s meaningful commitment to diversity beyond the admissions office door, because it doesn’t produce intra-racial diversity as well as inter-racial diversity on campus.

To us, the ideal admissions plan prioritizes both socioeconomic and racial diversity as inextricably-linked, compelling goals. Race-based affirmative action is one important tool to achieve racial diversity for students of all economic backgrounds. Class-based affirmative action can be an important supplemental tool to achieve economic diversity for students from and within all racial backgrounds.

But let’s be clear. As important as the affirmative action in college admissions debate is, and it is important, the ultimate policy goal we should care about is ensuring a “meaningful commitment to diversity” on campus. That requires examination of not just whether a college enrolls a racially and economically diverse class, but whether a college also ensures that all students have an equal and substantial likelihood of achieving success measured in terms of graduation and beyond.


Related: Diversity Beyond Affirmative Action


As we all should know, there’s a lot more work to be done on the success front. Let’s not lose sight of that ultimate goal.