The Next Affirmative Action: Want to Help Minority College Students? Make the Entire Higher Education System More Accountable

By Carey, Kevin | The Washington Monthly, January-February 2013 | Go to article overview

The Next Affirmative Action: Want to Help Minority College Students? Make the Entire Higher Education System More Accountable


Carey, Kevin, The Washington Monthly


Affirmative action as we know it is dying. A growing number of states have moved to prohibit public universities from considering race in admissions, and the U.S. Supreme Court recently heard arguments in an anti-affirmative action lawsuit that left little doubt about where the Court's conservative majority stands. Less than a decade after the Court upheld racial admissions preferences in Grutter v. Bollinger, newer jurists like Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts seem ready to render unconstitutional a policy that has helped generations of minority students grab a rung on the ladder of opportunity.

The Court's likely decision is particularly odious given the college admissions apparatus it will leave in place. Elite colleges warp and corrupt the meritocratic admissions process in a wide variety of ways. Academically substandard athletes, for example, are allowed in so they can play for the amusement of alumni and help shore up the fund-raising base. While some men's football and basketball players come from low-income and minority households, many athletes at the highly selective colleges where affirmative action really matters engage in sports like crew and lacrosse that are associated with white, privileged backgrounds. Colleges also give preference to the children of legacies, professors, celebrities, politicians, and people who write large checks to the general fund. All of these groups are also disproportionately wealthy and white.

In other words, the Supreme Court is poised to uphold affirmative action for everyone except minority students. We've come to this point in part because the Court has been packed with people like Roberts, who once struck down a plan to integrate public schools on the grounds that he saw no distinction between race-conscious policies that increased integration and the kind of brutal discrimination outlawed by Brown v. Board of Education. Apparently, John Roberts doesn't see race, so neither should anyone else.

But affirmative action is also dying because it has strayed far from its original purpose. The justification for affirmative action the Court used in Grutter is that schools have a compelling interest in increasing racial diversity because students benefit from learning among people from disparate backgrounds. Affirmative action, once a pillar of the nation's work on behalf of the historically oppressed, is now allowable only on the grounds that it's good for white people.

This allowed Roberts to harangue lawyers defending the University of Texas's affirmative action policies by asking them how much diversity, exactly, they were shooting for, knowing that any specific answer could be struck down as an illegal quota. Perpetual swing vote and de facto King of America Anthony Kennedy, meanwhile, made the sensible critique that UT was giving preference to wealthy minority students, since the university presumably gets more than enough of the poor kind through a state law granting automatic admission to students who graduate in the top 20 percent of their high school class.

Regardless of how the Court ultimately rules, it's time to return affirmative action to its original purpose: leveling the college playing field for students who have been unjustly denied a fair chance at success. And the most important part of that project is expanding this idea far beyond elite colleges and universities.

While Brown is the iconic twentieth-century decision on race and educational justice, the 1954 decision was presaged by a number of crucial legal actions in higher education. Unsurprisingly, states with racist elementary and secondary school policies also discriminated against black students in their universities. In 1950, future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall argued and won Sweatt v. Painter, which prohibited UT from forcing black students into a separate law school.

And like Brown, the promise of those early victories has been substantially unfulfilled. …

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