The O'Connor Project: Intervening Early to Eliminate the Need for Racial Preferences in Higher Education

Article excerpt

Over the half-century since the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, our nation has struggled to fulfill its commitment to racial equality. In Brown, the Court recognized the indispensable role that equal education opportunity would play in achieving that goal. Yet, not long alter Brown, the country's courts and political leaders seemed to agree thai after centuries of slavery and racial exclusion, equal opportunity alone would not be enough to ensure African Americans an equal stake in oui nation's social, cultural, and economic life. Policies of racial preferences were implemented to provide African Americans greater access to educational, employment, and other opportunities. Ry the end of the 20th century, the backlash against these affirmative action policies threatened to hring progress toward racial inchisiveness to a halt.

Last year, however, the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Gruller v. Bollinger upheld the constitutionality and desirability of diversity programs that take race into account and which, in effect, accord racial preferences to African American applicants to graduate school.1 In her opinion for the Court, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor emphasized the limited extent to which these preferences may be relied upon by university administrators. She also imposed a durational limitation on their use, declaring her expectation that racial preferences in higher education will no longer be necessary 25 years from now.

Justice O'Connor's expectation is realistic if, and only if, the nation acts promptly to put in place the measures that would eliminate, or substantially reduce, racial disparities that occur between hirlh and young adulthood. Figuring out (he actions needed is the easier part, because the knowledge about what works to reduce these disparities now exists, waiting only to he assembled and disseminated in actionable form. The hard part-mobilizing the politieal will Io implement this agenda-will require a major effort by American opinion leaders, black and while.

Here is what we can and must do to reduce or eliminate racial disparities early in life and thereby eliminate the need for racial preferences at the university level:

* First, reduce racial disparities in birth outcomes.

* second, reduce the disparities in school readiness.

* Third, attack racial disparities in the outcomes of kindergarten through 12th-grade (K-12) education.

* Fourth, reduce significant racial disparities in the successful transition to young adulthood.

A fundamental tend of the agenda laid out here, which I call "The O'Connor Project," is that in a nation in which a legacy of slavery and Jim Crow plays such a powerful and destructive role, no single, isolated change can bring about condilions where racial preferences will be unnecessary. What is needed, rather, is a combination of actions that would eliminate racial disparities at each decisive stage of development. As Harvard professor William Julius Wilson, leading scholar of urban poverty, has pointed out, to "drastically reduce and eventually eliminate the environmental difL that create the present gap in black and white achievement," we must "attack all aspects of the structure of inequality."" This is a daunting challenge, but one that this nation can meet by building on widely shared and strongly held values-the importance of education, family responsibility, and social justice.

One encouraging recent development is the establishment at Harvard University of the new Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice. To be headed by Harvard law professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr., the institute will help lead efforts to rally national support for the actions envisioned as part of The O'Connor Project.

Implementation of this agenda will change life trajectories as today's children become healthier, better educated, and better prepared to succeed in good jobs and to be tomorrow's effective parents. …