Education

Affirmative Action Has Been Under Fire For 40 Years. Here's Why Diversity Always Wins

“We can't be a prosperous democracy and leave the growing talent pool on the sidelines” by Joseph Williams

August 10, 2017

When the Justice Department announced last week that it was lining up behind a lawsuit against Harvard University over its consideration of race in student admissions, David Hawkins, who’s worked on the issue for nearly two decades, says there was a near-universal reaction among higher-ed admissions officials:

Here we go again.

“They feel pretty beaten-down,” says Hawkins, executive director for education content at the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC), which represents college admissions officers. Despite a decisive Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action just 13 months ago — and federal litigation stretching back to 1977 — “it just keeps reappearing,” Hawkins says.

The déjà vu is understandable: The same one-man organization that put the Fisher v. University of Texas case on the national agenda is behind the Harvard lawsuit. The suit alleges the Ivy League school lets in less-qualified black and Hispanic students and keeps out higher-performing Asian-Americans all for the sake of artificial campus diversity.

The organization, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), which is an offshoot of the Project on Fair Representation, also announced in late June that it’s challenging the University of Texas at Austin again. In a court filing, SFFA alleges that the same carefully tailored admissions policies that got the thumbs-up from the Supreme Court majority last year are illegal under the Lone Star State’s constitution.

Asian Americans benefited from affirmative action 50 years ago.

“It is our belief that the Texas Constitution unequivocally forbids UT-Austin from treating applicants differently because of their race and ethnicity,” Edward Blum, president of SFFA, said in a statement announcing a request to block the policy.

Meanwhile, last week’s headlines about the feds challenging affirmative action were a call to arms for Asian-Americans.

Worried that Blum and Attorney General Jeff Sessions will use them as a Trojan horse — arguing that affirmative action allows colleges to bring in subpar black and Hispanic students and leave better-qualified Asians and whites out in the cold — Asian-American students and graduates took to their keyboards to push back. Within hours of the news, the hashtag #NotYourModelMinority was up and trending on Twitter.

“Opposing race-conscious affirmative action overlooks past and present challenges that communities of color — including Asian Americans—face in higher education,” researcher Charmaine Runes wrote in an essay for The Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. “It ignores the way Asian Americans benefited from affirmative action 50 years ago and how they continue to benefit from racial and ethnic diversity on campuses.”

The latest battle lines

The Justice Department’s policy, Blum’s offenses against Harvard and Texas, and the Asian-American community’s resistance to being used as a weapon are only the latest battle lines in this seemingly perpetual war. Since the Supreme Court upheld affirmative action in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke in the 1970s, some Americans have attacked race as a factor in college admissions while civil rights advocates — and most colleges — have fought to preserve it, pointing to studies that show its value for whites as well as minorities.

Hawkins, of the NACAC, says roughly one-third of all U.S. colleges have race-conscious admissions policies, meaning that two-thirds of all schools either voluntarily avoid the issue or have state laws that ban it. Eight states — Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Washington — ban the use of race in admissions policies, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

We can't be a prosperous democracy and leave the growing talent pool on the sidelines.

At the same time, Hawkins says, the Supreme Court seemed to have the last word in Fisher v. University of Texas, a ruling that “has provided a pretty sophisticated framework” for admissions directors who believe diversity helps all students.

“By disregarding the Fisher ruling, the administration and Justice Department would frustrate efforts to improve educational opportunity, and would erode respect for diversity in higher education,” Nancy T. Beane, president of the NACAC, said in a statement. “This initiative would be a serious challenge to the critical work of improving college access and success for all students.”

Challenge accepted, said Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Rutgers University and a proponent of diversity on campus.

“We need to keep our focus on cultivating the diverse talent in our country — we can't be a prosperous democracy and leave the growing talent pool on the sidelines,” she told Inside Higher Ed. “Let's not get distracted from our social responsibility by efforts to pit groups — we all need opportunity and we all depend on each other's talent.”

Learning from the Golden State’s mistakes

With the passage of Proposition 209 in 1996, California became the first state to prohibit race as a consideration for college admissions. As the Los Angeles Times explained last year:

“The passage of Prop. 209 initially sent black and Latino enrollment plunging throughout the University of California system — especially at UCLA and Berkeley, the most selective campuses. The number of African American freshmen enrolled at UCLA fell by nearly half — from 264 in 1995 to 144 in 1998, the first year the ban took effect. At Berkeley, over the same period, it dropped from 215 to 126.”

In response, the university system dialed up its outreach and recruitment of top students at mostly minority, low-income schools and in their neighborhoods. In 2015, UCLA caught up to the levels of minority student enrollment it had before the ban, according to the Times. And the University of California system intends to keep going.

Prop. 200 protest flyer via Wikimedia Commons.

“UC has been increasing its outreach efforts to historically underrepresented groups like Latinos and African Americans, while still bound to the strictures of Proposition 209, which bars consideration of race or ethnicity in granting admission,” University of California president Janet Napolitano said last week in a statement. “It would be tragic, to say the least, if these efforts somehow ran afoul of this reported misguided Justice Department initiative.”

Intensified college outreach to these populations makes for good policy and practice.

The news that the federal government intends to use its vast resources to fight that view is frustrating and a “red meat” political issue, Hawkins says. At the same time, he anticipates that outreach to black and Latino students will intensify nationally. Joint research conducted by the American Council on Education in conjunction with the NACAC “suggests that recruitment will, in fact, be one of the primary strategies colleges and universities rely on to boost interest in their institutions and assemble a diverse student body,” Hawkins says. “Moreover, given what we know about the challenges associated with exposing under-represented students to college options, getting them the right information about how to get there, and convincing them that admission to college is possible, intensified college outreach to these populations makes for good policy and practice.” 

Still, he adds, “the issue has never been conclusively settled.” That’s largely because of Blum, the director and sole proprietor of the Project for Fair Representation. He represented Abigail Fisher, a white student, in that infamous anti–affirmative-action lawsuit against the University of Texas.

Appealing to Asian-American students

When the high court rejected Fisher’s case last year, Blum decided that an Asian-American student would be a more sympathetic plaintiff; his organization set up a recruiting website for Asian-American students who had been denied admission to Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the state’s flagship public school.

Though he had few takers initially, Blum eventually found willing Asian-American participants and filed suit against the schools. And he may have good fortune on his side: Along with Sessions, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito has publicly declared that race-conscious admissions are unfair to Asian-Americans.

Opposing race-conscious affirmative action overlooks past and present challenges that communities of color — including Asian Americans — face in higher education.

Still, it’s far from certain that Blum will succeed with his latest effort, even with the federal government on his side. Justice Anthony Kennedy provided the deciding vote in the Fisher case, and Asian-Americans are largely standing with blacks and Hispanics in the fight for equality.

“Asian Americans should focus on elevating their voice to improve and shape education policy in a way that acknowledges and addresses systemic inequalities,” wrote the Urban Institute’s Runes, “not just for themselves, but for all minorities.”

Top photo and share image by UC Davis College of Engineering/Flickr.

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