Overturned: Affirmative Action and University policies
When thinking about the topic of Affirmative Action, buzzwords such as reverse racism; privilege; and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion often come to mind, and it’s not always so clear what the actual definition is.
So — what exactly is Affirmative Action? According to Merriam-Webster, it is the “use of policies to improve the educational or employment opportunities of members of certain demographics” namely, marginalized communities such as people of color, women, or the elderly. The most widely seen example of affirmative action is within higher education institutions.
The college admissions process has been long seen as inequitable when the basis of admissions is on tangible results such as GPA or standardized test scores.
The emphasis on grades and test scores ignores the fact that students come from a variety of educational backgrounds and not everyone is entitled to the necessary training, whether in school or by private means, to perform well. With Affirmative Action, there is more opportunity for students to gain admissions with equity-driven race consciousness that grounds affirmative action.
While this might seem quite controversial, affirmative action has been in place for half a century. The word first appeared in Executive Order 10925, which was issued after John F. Kennedy created a Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity in 1961. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Executive Order 11246. One of the first Supreme Court cases to rule in favor of Affirmative Action was in the summer of 1978.
The case of Regents of the University of California vs. Bakke was one of retaliation against Affirmative Action. Allan Bakke, a 30-year-old white man, applied to medical school at the University of California, Davis, and was rejected twice.
Bakke said that he was qualified beyond other applicants and he should have been accepted but because the school set aside 16 seats for minority students out of the class of 100, and claimed that he was discriminated against for being a white man. He sued, and the court decided in favor of Bakke, arguing that he be admitted — although they did allow the use of race in admissions as long as it was a small aspect of the overall evaluation.
A more notable court case is Fisher V University of Texas. It all began in 2008, when Abigail Fisher, a young white woman, was denied undergraduate admissions at the University of Texas and sued with the claim that the university’s consideration of race violated the Equal Protection clause. The case made its way through courts, finally reaching the Supreme Court in 2013.
The American Council On Education, a non-profit higher education organization, stated, “The Supreme Court voided the lower appellate court's ruling in favor of UT and remanded the case for further consideration, via a 7–1 decision, with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissenting" Fisher then decided to appeal her case, and the Supreme Court made their decision in 2016 to uphold the admission policy at the University of Texas.
These and other court cases over many decades solidified the idea that race can be considered within the admission process, so it was quite a shock when the Supreme Court ended Affirmative Action this past June. In the cases of SFFA v. Harvard and SFFA v. UNC, the Supreme Court ruled that Affirmative Action violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment in favor of the Students For Fair Admissions .
What is the impact of this decision? Did it make sense? This was definitely a decision that, from my perspective, will only cause harm. The choice to demolish Affirmative Action is going to set marginalized students even further back. This completely dishonors the intent behind Brown v. Board of Education, which set in stone the importance of ending segregation.
This idea that Affirmative Action is unlawful dismisses the concept of fair access to education. These will be a decrease in diversity in higher educational institutions, especially at Ivy League colleges, and restrictions on opportunities for students of color.
It is important to note that according to Chief Justice John Roberts, who is quoted in an NPR article on Affirmative Action, “Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant's discussion of how race affected his or her life." The door for affirmative action has been left open in only very specific instances, such as in military schools or police academies. The idea behind this being to recruit minorities in an effort to ease tensions with the police, especially in situations of white officers policing majority-black towns.
For some, the idea of ending Affirmative Action is one that will somehow lead to more equality. And maybe that is true. However, it is essential to recognize when to implement equality and when to implement equity.
To me, Affirmative Action is only the tip of the iceberg to creating a road to equity. And without that as a foundation, equality seems unrealistic.
While the U.S. takes pride in its meritocracy, it ignores the systemic racism that continues to infect our society, tearing apart the fabric of a pluralistic society. Although one battle may have been lost, the war is far from over.