Affirmative Action in Today's Classroom
Tuesday, June 19, 2018 at 10:04AM
David H.K. Nguyen

Reverse discrimination, meritocracy, and color-blind are terms often used in arguments against affirmative action, especially regarding college admissions. Critics say affirmative action is an outdated policy that results in underserving students and lowering the academic prowess of an institution. Many opponents even claim they share Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream of a world without race and that affirmative action is hindering our country from reaching that point. If our society were truly post-racial however we would not see college graduation rates varying so widely between races, all other considerations constant.

Affirmative action is any effort made to improve educational or economic opportunities for historically disadvantaged groups such as people of color and women. This can include recruitment and retention efforts among others. According to a Gallup poll, the nation is split fairly evenly on the issue of affirmative action, but when the question is posed including the term “racial preferences” support drops as low as 38 percent.

Affirmative action, though it was not always called that, dates back to the 14th amendment which calls for equal state protection of similarly situated persons. This really took hold within the workforce in the 60s when Presidents Kennedy and Johnson passed executive orders explicitly referring to race and sex respectively and for the first time using the term affirmative action. It wasn’t until the Brown v. Board ruling when notes of affirmative action began to take hold in education. Like most rulings and laws, things did not change overnight. It was 24 years later in Bakke v. University of California when affirmative action began to get fleshed out in higher education as the court declared race quotas unconstitutional. The focus on affirmative action has largely been a black and white binary argument until recently. A nonprofit group, Students for Fair Admissions, believe “most competitive universities are not in compliance” with the Supreme Court’s decision in Fisher v. University of Texas. Students for Fair Admissions has a current lawsuit against Harvard claiming racial balancing is occurring, specifically regarding Asian students. While the proportion of Asian applicants rise, the proportion admitted has stayed rather constant. Harvard is arguing that they do not put quotas on their student population but that they must pay attention to maintain a truly diverse student body.

Although the narrative of affirmative action is changing, the opponents of affirmative action have maintained a whiteness that cannot be ignored. When the question of affirmative action for women is posed, there is support. When the question of affirmative action based on race is raised, you see more opposition. People feel as though something is being taken from them for opportunity to be given to others. These feelings can be explained as white supremacy. In this context white supremacy refers to a society in which power, privilege, and entitlement are widespread among white people. White people are not uniformly powerful, one must consider intersectionality, but if the focus remains on correcting overt racism and not the systems that perpetuate privilege, change will not be seen.

A landmark case for affirmative action, Grutter v. Bollinger defined the benefits of diversity as promoting "cross-racial understanding," and learning outcomes that "better prepare students for an increasingly diverse workforce and society," and deconstructing racial stereotypes. So, while affirmative action has been seen as taking from the hardworking and giving to an undeserving person of color, we must consider who affirmative action is really benefitting. Is it the populations who are criticized and told they cannot succeed without affirmative action measures, or is it the population that continues to hold power in this society and leaves the classroom a more well-rounded individual because of it?

This post was authored by Ms. Micayla Bean, a masters student in Higher Education Administration at The University of Texas at San Antonio and a graduate assistant in Student Activities. 

Article originally appeared on Highereducationlaw.org (http://www.highereducationlaw.org/).
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