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We Still Need Affirmative Action — but Authentic Affirmative Action

Even before the Supreme Court's decision striking it down, Black students didn’t have equitable access to elite public higher education. We need to find better ways to extend true educational opportunities to all Americans.

The University of California's Berkeley campus
Students at the University of California’s elite Berkeley campus. Berkeley and UCLA saw a 40 percent drop in Black and Latino student enrollment following the passage in 1996 of Proposition 209, a ballot measure that banned affirmative action.
(David A. Litman/Shutterstock)
I have been a longtime critic of affirmative action programs as they’ve been practiced in higher education, but I abhor the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking them down. I criticize affirmative action programs not because they discriminate against better-qualified white and Asian students but because they have not gone nearly far enough in leveling the playing field and delivering on the promise of equal opportunity for African American students.

Educators and policymakers who claim to support diversity in higher ed must ask: Why did their elite, highly competitive public universities admit so few African American students during the decades the Supreme Court permitted affirmative action to exist?

The answer to this question will help us better understand why Black students don’t have equitable access to the nation’s most prestigious public higher ed institutions — and in effect, why in reality we have very limited authentic affirmative action. By now, colleges with affirmative action programs should have developed effective tools to ameliorate past and current racial discrimination in higher education. They have not, which is why the court’s decision should have been to bend, not end affirmative action.

This graph shows how poorly many states have been doing in admitting Black students to their elite institutions:
African Americans constitute about 31.7 percent of the college-age population of Georgia, but only 7.7 percent of enrollment at the University of Georgia (UGA); 26.5 percent of the population of South Carolina but only 8.8 percent of students enrolled at its flagship university; and 23 percent of the population of North Carolina but only 7.8 percent of student enrollment at its Chapel Hill campus.

California in particular illustrates the impact of long-term public policies on equitable enrollment. According to an NPR report, the state’s elite Berkeley and UCLA campuses saw a 40 percent drop in Black and Latino student enrollment following the passage in 1996 of Proposition 209, a ballot measure that banned affirmative action not only in public higher education but also in public hiring and contracting.

Major businesses prefer to hire graduates of elite universities, and they pay them more. Black college graduates in California received 5 percent less in earnings after Prop. 209 curtailed their access to Berkeley and UCLA. Denying Black students access to prestigious schools is one of a plethora of reasons why we still have a large racial wealth gap. Closing that gap is one of the strongest arguments for why authentic affirmative action is needed as much today as ever. Yet despite mostly good intentions, affirmative action programs have only been marginally effective. While concept and implementation problems are real, there are ways they can be overcome.

First and foremost, proponents should make it a high priority to change the narrative about affirmative action by rebranding it, not merely renaming it. Opponents have defined affirmative action as a form of reverse discrimination that elevates race above merit. What I find hypocritical about this belief is that few if any who attend Division I college football games ever complain that star running backs, regardless of their race, are “replacing” highly qualified Asian or white students. The commonly held belief that mediocre Black and brown students are replacing meritorious Asian and white students is little more than a racist troll and conspiracy theory. African American and Latino students who get into schools with race-conscious programs are deserving and check all the other boxes for admission.

To use an example close to home: In 2009 my daughter was admitted into Wellesley College, an elite all-women’s school that produced two graduates who became U.S. secretary of state: Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton. My daughter had high SAT scores (although sending them in was optional), excellent high school grades, strong teacher evaluations, a well-written college essay, and top-notch athletic and music abilities. She served as a peer leader in high school and as a member of her school’s student court. She also was from the South. With all those things going for her, do you think her race played a large part, if any, in her getting into Wellesley? It would be truly unfortunate if she went through life, as Justice Clarence Thomas claims he does, wondering if white society thinks that she achieved all that she has only because of affirmative action.

Next, proponents need to look closely at affirmative action programs that work but don’t consider race. States like Texas maintain they have achieved diversity through admitting the top 10 percent of high school graduates from each public school. I believe students who have overcome obstacles and solved complex problems, like achieving academically despite poverty or overcoming homelessness, are likely to be successful not only in college but in life. There must be a way to measure these skills and use them in helping to make admissions decisions.

One final suggestion: Supporters of affirmative action must insist that educational institutions provide an atmosphere of openness that results in minority students feeling welcomed and valued. It does little good to matriculate minority students and then expect them to conform to the norms of white society and culture once there. A friend who helped desegregate Duke University in the 1960s told me that when he and his classmates were first admitted there were no hair salons nearby that “did Black hair.” Fifty percent of his Black classmates did not return after the first year, not because they couldn’t do the work but because they felt culturally alienated. I am sure Duke and other colleges do a better job now creating a welcoming environment. But there are many who still believe that flagship universities like UGA and the University of Alabama are white institutions that Black students need to adjust to if they are fortunate enough to get into them.

The Supreme Court ruling, as wrong legally and ideologically as it may be, has provided an opportunity for those who believe in equity and diversity to fix affirmative action and make it work like it always should have worked. We must develop an authentic affirmative action that extends true educational opportunities to all Americans. If we fail to seize this moment, affirmative action will still be practiced in the form of legacy, donor and other types of preferences that don’t relate to individual merit. This will disfavor minority students and ensure that only those who have enjoyed the advantages and privileges of elite education in the past will continue to do so into the foreseeable future.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
Government and education columnist
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