Affirmative Action Isn't About Diversity, It's About Something Much More Important

Affirmative Action Isn't About Diversity, It's About Something Much More Important
Source: AP
Source: AP

The Supreme Court rejected a challenge to a race-conscious admissions program at the University of Texas at Austin on Thursday. The move was, in effect, a ruling in favor of affirmative action — a longstanding practice in which race and gender are considered among several factors in hiring and admissions decisions. 

There's a widespread idea that affirmative action is primarily about diversity. If a campus or workplace is racially diverse, the thinking goes, performance improves, and we're all made better for it. It's an idea that's so widespread that both advocates and critics of affirmative action use it to make their arguments. But if we focus on diversity, we miss the entire point of affirmative action. 

From its conception in the 1960s, affirmative action was not about diversity — it was about equity. In other words, it was a conscious attempt to address real institutional damage done to women and communities of color that kept them out of America's classrooms and workplaces — and still do.

Affirmative action, as we know it, came into existence on Sept. 28, 1965, by executive order from President Lyndon B. Johnson. The country was less than a year removed from the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 which, among other things, outlawed discrimination based on race, sex and religion. In his executive order, Johnson took that act one step further by announcing that the federal government would not only prohibit such discrimination, but would proactively work to prevent it. 

President Lyndon B. Johnson with Dr. Martin Luther King at the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Source: 
AFP/Getty Images

"The contractor will not discriminate against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, creed, color, or national origin," the order read. "The contractor will take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin."

In his executive order, Johnson was acknowledging that such discrimination wasn't just the unfortunate result of interpersonal interactions that kept people from different cultures away from one another. He was admitting that structural racism crippled black Americans' opportunities, and that the so-called "equal playing field" of American meritocracy didn't exist. 

That much was clear in a speech Johnson made months earlier at Howard University. African-Americans, he said, "are trapped—as many whites are trapped—in inherited, gateless poverty. They lack training and skills. They are shut in, in slums, without decent medical care. Private and public poverty combine to cripple their capacities." 

But the evils of black poverty were different than the ones afflicting white communities. "It is the devastating heritage of long years of slavery; and a century of oppression, hatred, and injustice," he said.

By rejecting a challenge to affirmative action on Thursday, the Supreme Court acknowledged that the devastating impact of slavery and institutional racism still exists. Poverty still exists along deeply racialized lines. Neighborhoods and schools are more segregated now than at any point in the last 40 years. And the government must still play a proactive role in making sure that American citizens are afforded their constitutional right to opportunity for all. 

Read more: 
The Supreme Court Just Saved Affirmative Action in a Landmark Case
Actual Scientists Speak Out to Defend Affirmative Action to the Supreme Court
These Alums Want West Point to Have an Honest Conversation About Race

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Jamilah King

Jamilah King is a senior staff writer at Mic. She was previously an editor at Colorlines.

MORE FROM

Hundreds rally in Times Square to protest Donald Trump’s transgender military ban

“I’m out here to support my trans brothers and sisters who have been serving our military for years and years and years."

Several Republicans are strongly denouncing Trump’s military transgender ban

“Anybody who wants to serve in the military should serve in the military. I don’t agree with the president.”

Worried Trump might pardon himself? Blame Alexander Hamilton.

Hamilton might not have been "thinkin' past tomorrow" when he pushed for broad executive privileges.

Harry Truman desegregated the military 69 years ago. Today, Trump banned transgender troops.

Truman wanted to end discrimination in the military "as rapidly as possible."

Here is a timeline of Donald Trump’s relationship with Jeff Sessions

Trump continued his Twitter attacks on Sessions Wednesday — reportedly while the embattled attorney general was in the White House.

How many transgender people serve in the U.S. military?

There's no exact number, but here's what research shows.

Hundreds rally in Times Square to protest Donald Trump’s transgender military ban

“I’m out here to support my trans brothers and sisters who have been serving our military for years and years and years."

Several Republicans are strongly denouncing Trump’s military transgender ban

“Anybody who wants to serve in the military should serve in the military. I don’t agree with the president.”

Worried Trump might pardon himself? Blame Alexander Hamilton.

Hamilton might not have been "thinkin' past tomorrow" when he pushed for broad executive privileges.

Harry Truman desegregated the military 69 years ago. Today, Trump banned transgender troops.

Truman wanted to end discrimination in the military "as rapidly as possible."

Here is a timeline of Donald Trump’s relationship with Jeff Sessions

Trump continued his Twitter attacks on Sessions Wednesday — reportedly while the embattled attorney general was in the White House.

How many transgender people serve in the U.S. military?

There's no exact number, but here's what research shows.