Fisher v University of Texas Decision: There's A Reason America Still Needs Affirmative Action

With the Supreme Court agreeing to hear Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action next term and sending Fisher v. University of Texas back to a lower court, affirmative action will be in the public eye for awhile. PolicyMic writers have been nearly universally opposed to affirmative action. Greg Hartman writes, “Choosing applicants based on race is in itself racist.” Danny Zeng writes, “At its core, a race-conscious admission policy essentially asks innocent contemporaries to readdress historic wrongs in which that they could claim no direct involvement or sanction. At the risk of sounding too crass, let me ask this: Is it fair for us to attempt to demand reparations from Germans today for the atrocity committed under the Third Reich? I think not.” (As a slight aside, the German government paid hefty reparations to the victims of Nazi atrocities. The U.S., despite promises, paid no such reparations to African-Americans.)

Although I am sympathetic to these types of arguments, I think that they overstate the amount of racial progress America has made. I think there is a chance that SCOTUS will strike down affirmative action on public universities and that most will be institute a system of socio-economic affirmative action, but I am hesitant to begin rejoicing.

Is it really time to get rid of affirmative action? There are two arguments for affirmative action: First, that diversity in education is good for students (there is solid research backing up this assertion), and second, that the obstacles an African American student has to overcome just to apply to college merit a leg up.

Most people will concede the first point (arguing that while diversity is good, we can achieve it without affirmative action). Rather, it is the second argument they primarily attack. And yet it couldn’t come at a worse time. The wealth gap between whites and blacks hasn't just grown, it has tripled. Thomas Shapiro, Tatjana Meshede, and Sam Orso find that a college education is a huge driver of that gap.

A study by Martha J. Bailey finds that the college entry gap between the rich and poor has widened dramatically over the past 40 years, driven largely by inequality. African-Americans aren’t flourishing in public office. There are only two African-American senators (and there has only ever been one black senator in the South, and he was appointed, not elected). There is currently only one black governor and there have been few in the last 100 years. Much of President Obama’s cabinet is conspicuously white and male. The truth is that blacks are drastically underrepresented in the political sphere. There have only been 13 black CEOs of a Fortune 500 company. Ever. Another study finds that a mere 14% of college presidents are minority. African Americans still deal with the legacy of racism and oppression. Many blacks alive today can remember redlining, and lack of a home is still a major driver of black poverty. The average inheritance of a black Baby Boomer is $8,000 while the average inheritance of a white baby boomer is $65,000.

Elementary and high schools are still highly segregated and schools with high minority populations are underfunded. In these circumstances, affirmative action is not an unfair boost, it is rather an equalizer. Students who grow up in poverty, attend an underfunded and understaffed school, who don’t get pre-school or summer school, and still manage to score close to pampered children in public school certainly deserve aid.

Those who argue that racism is gone and that slavery ended more than a hundred years ago forget that during my father’s lifetime blacks were discriminated against in the purchase of housing, and just last week the HUD discovered a subtle racial bias in housing opportunity. There’s a disparity in arrests for benign drugs and another in sentencing, especially for the death penalty. Most Americans believe that abolishing  affirmative action will bring America closer to meritocracy. But that’s unlikely and it relies on an incredibly detached vision of meritocracy. Martha Bailey (cited above) finds that the main reason for the college entry gap between rich and poor is not due to cognitive ability, but rather poverty: “Even among those who had the same measured cognitive skills as teenagers, inequality in college entry and completion across income groups is greater today than it was two decades ago.”

But does affirmative action help? Opponents of affirmative action cite the research of Richard Sander extensively. Sander published a study in 2004 that found that black students who were accepted into school because of affirmative action failed to obtain a degree and therefore there should be less affirmative action. Odd that many don’t even even consider a critique of that study, published later that year by David L. Chambers, Timothy T. Clydesdale, William C. Kidder, and Richard O. Lempert. Chambers et al found that: "Our analyses of both the NSLSP [National Survey of Law School Performance] and BPS [Bar Passage Study] thus reveal that Sander is wrong when he concludes that the current lower performance by African Americans in law school is ‘a simple and direct consequence of the disparity in entering credentials between blacks and whites.’ It is not."

They find that without affirmative action, “both the enrollment of African American law students (particularly at the 50 or 80 most selective schools) and the production of African American lawyers would significantly decline.” The same thing is likely to happen in other colleges. Without affirmative action, the already dismal numbers for African-Americans entering and graduating college may decline even further.

Someday we’ll be at a point where we can end affirmative action. I think the Supreme Court would jumping the gun to overturn affirmative action in the next session. However, I am open to a system that primarily weights  socioeconomic class, which sadly in America is all too often a reliable indicator of race. The argument against affirmative action essentially assumes that the U.S. is a perfect meritocracy, sans its race-based affirmative action policies. I’ve shown elsewhere that meritocracy in America is largely a farce. It’s worth noting that the real affirmative action goes to rich kids and athletes. We need to create a real equality of opportunity in America. Affirmative action can help.

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Sean McElwee

Sean McElwee is a Research Associate at Demos.

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