Who is affirmative action for?
Many are viewing Thursday’s Supreme Court affirmation of the Fifth Circuit’s decision to allow University of Texas to consider race in admissions in the Fisher v. University of Texas case as a victory. But consider this: The only legally permissible justification for affirmative action has been that it improves the lives of whites. In the 1978 case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, Justice Lewis Powell’s majority opinion supported affirmative action for its contribution to a diverse student body and the “robust exchange of ideas.” The important question here is, diverse for whom? The campus was predominantly white in 1978. The advocates of the University of California and Powell both understood that white students would benefit from minority voices in their classes.
A group of more than 800 scholars, including myself, filed an amicus brief to Fisher v. Texas, with research conducted in the decades after Bakke that details those benefits. So we now know that those hunches back in the 1970s were right.
Still, the legal justification of affirmative action solely for its impact on white students is problematic.
Affirmative action also promotes racial equity by opening access to selective colleges. This is as important today as it was in the 1960s. Black and Latino kids on average continue to score lower on the SAT, have access to fewer AP classes, and get referred to lower-track classes in school than their white and Asian peers with the same skills. Why mask this important goal in favor of emphasizing benefits to white students?
Some say that ignoring societal benefits and increased racial equality, in favor of the current legal reasoning of a diverse learning environment, doesn’t matter. After all, the legal arguments are just for legal purposes.
However, in my research with undergraduates at Ivy League universities, I have found that this narrow justification shapes students’ conceptions of fairness and equity in admissions. Many white students at elite colleges agree with affirmative action only because they understand it benefits them through interaction with their minority peers. As a result, some are upset when they see tables of black peers in the cafeteria, when their black peers join the Black Students Association, or when Latino peers spend their time at Centers for Students of Color. What they don’t understand is that those organizations can be lifelines for students unfamiliar with the culture of elite, predominantly white universities, and who share experiences with racial injustice.
The sole emphasis on benefits to themselves also leads many white students to fear that affirmative action may in the future limit their opportunities. Affirmative action becomes an easy scapegoat when they fail in competitive processes like graduate school admission, summer internships, and jobs. One student at Harvard shared his worries about what some call reverse discrimination: “If I hadn’t gotten into Harvard I would have felt that I’d been discriminated against. If someone else that I knew and was equally qualified who was an ethnic minority had gotten in above me.” Affirmative action is an easy target when its only justification is the benefit of whites.
The diversity-of-voices lens misses the point. Affirmative action is about expanding opportunity and recalibrating our imprecise measures of merit so that they take our nation’s legacy of systemic and institutional racism into consideration. And we adults feed white students’ anxiety when we do not say so.
Universities should find a way to broaden the scope of the discussion around affirmative action. For lessons in how to do this, I look optimistically toward affirmative action in employment.
The courts have not allowed the consideration of race in hiring to promote diversity, even in school districts looking to diversify their teaching forces. Despite this, employers and professional associations continue to openly discuss diversity in hiring. For example, the National Education Association, on its Web page, argues for “the need for a diverse teaching staff.” This is so important when more than half of public school children today are children of color, yet more than 80 percent of our teachers are white — especially given the importance of teachers forming connections with their students and establishing school cultures that hold a deep understanding of the communities they serve.
What is stopping our colleges and universities from taking a bold stance too, and highlighting not only the diversity argument, but also acknowledging the ongoing racial inequity in our society that demands affirmative action to compensate? Why not help white students understand why minority peers sometimes need some time and space to be with peers of their own background, and why affirmative action is about spreading opportunity, not hoarding it?
Natasha Kumar Warikoo is associate professor at the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University.