As the US Supreme Court considers a challenge to race-based affirmative action at the University of Texas, does the practice still have a place in the 21st century US?
“Higher education is the place that really makes the difference and that’s why this kind of very sensitive affirmative action is very important to maintain and if possible to expand.“
– Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, the director of Howard University’s Public History programme
In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson enacted an executive order which required government institutions to implement ‘affirmative action’ to increase the representation of minorities.
This came in the wake of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which outlawed racial segregation following years of struggle in the south of the US.
The extent of divisions was exhibited in 1962 when segregationists rioted as black student James Meredeth attempted to enrol at the University of Mississippi.
Following Johnson’s executive order, hundreds of universities introduced affirmative action into their admission policies and there has been a significant increase in the number of ethnic minority students graduating.
“A lot of people are putting forward that if we use socio-economic status as a proxy for race we will get the diversity. Well … a significant proportion of the people who are of these minority groups are going to come from the lower socio-economic [strata] …. There isn’t really a good plan that doesn’t somehow take race into account.”
– Marilynn Schuyler, a board member with the American Association for Affirmative Action
But critics argue that the practice has no place in the modern US and a case challenging affirmative action at the University of Texas has reached the country’s highest court.
Supporters, however, say that affirmative action is still necessary to maintain diversity in a country that remains divided by race and class.
The Supreme Court heard arguments last week and will decide on the case in coming months. If the challenge is successful it could outlaw affirmative action across the country.
So, is there still the need for race-based affirmative action? And can universities ensure diversity without race-based affirmative action?
To discuss this Inside Story Americas is joined by guests: Marilynn Schuyler, a board member with the American Association for Affirmative Action; David Bernstein, the author of You can’t say that! The Growing Threat to Civil Liberties from Anti-Discrimination Laws; and Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, the director of Howard University’s Public History programme.
“A good start to stopping discrimination would be getting rid of the boxes on applications. Male, female, race, whatever. Those don’t tell the admissions people what kind of student you are or how involved you are. All they do is put you into a box. Get rid of the box.”
Abigail Fisher, the plaintiff in a discrimination suit against the University of Texas
RESEGREGATION OF US HIGH SCHOOLS:
UCLA’s Civil Rights Project recently released a series of reports which found increasing resegregation of high schools across the US:
- The reports say that, despite decreases in residential segregation, both black and Latino students are more likely to attend schools segregated by not only race, but also according to economic status
- 80 per cent of Latino students and 74 per cent of black students attend mostly non-white schools
- Those schools have nearly twice as many low-income students as majority white schools
- Although white students make up just half of the nation’s students, the typical white student goes to a school that is at least 75 per cent white
- The reports also say high poverty levels in schools are correlated with limits on educational opportunities, including inadequate facilities and less qualified teachers
A BETTER AFFIRMATIVE ACTION:
A recent study by the Century Foundation has found that in states where race-based affirmative action is no longer being used, some universities were still able to maintain their diversity through other means.
- The report is called A Better Affirmative Action
- It says race-based admissions policies are unpopular with voters and may soon be outlawed
- It advocates for certain “race-neutral” policies to maintain racial diversity
- Those include measures like class-based affirmative action which takes into consideration a student’s socio-economic status rather than his or her race
- Using such measures in states like Washington and Florida, black and Latino enrollments have surpassed previous levels when affirmative action was in place
- But these results are not universal – the more selective a university is, the less likely such measures were successful in maintaining diversity