In its long-awaited Fisher decision, the Supreme Court let stand the use of race preferences in college admissions as part of affirmative action programs.[i] The SC reaffirmed the principle of educational diversity stated in previous affirmative action cases (Bakke, 1978, and Grutter, 2003), that achieving racial diversity is a “compelling state interest” justifying race preference. However, the Court constrained the use of such race preferences by requiring colleges to demonstrate that no race-neutral admissions process could produce the desired degree of racial diversity.
(Educational) affirmative action is practiced only at selective colleges and universities. Less selective and especially public ones, such as the University of Massachusetts at Boston where I teach, are able to achieve as much or greater racial diversity without using race preferences in admissions, largely because they serve a less privileged segment of the population. The beneficiaries of affirmative action are for the most part the most advantaged segment of the black and Latino college-aspiring population.[ii] From the point of view of racial justice I think we should be no more than tepidly enthusiastic about educational affirmative action as it survived the Supreme Court’s scrutiny.
First, the large majority of black and Latino college students (and indeed all students) attend minimally selective institutions, most of them public. These institutions often provide superior educations to their students, indeed sometimes superior to those of the selective ones, because they are more tuned into the needs of students from modest backgrounds and put more effort and attention into helping them. Yet state universities have been progressively defunded, especially in the past 15 years or so. This has cut into their ability to serve a low-income population by increasing student debt, making students work longer hours, and pricing out many potential students. Affirmative action lulls people into thinking that a strong blow has been delivered for racial justice, while the vast majority of blacks and Latinos college students and aspirants are hurt by these defunding developments, and the neediest segments of those communities derive little benefit from affirmative action.
Second, affirmative action weakens the perception of a social obligation to deliver a decent secondary education to all students. The premise of affirmative action is that black and Latino students need a boost from race preference if they are to be admitted in respectable numbers to selective colleges. The weak primary and secondary educations delivered to black and Latino students, on the average, is the true scandal and injustice of our educational system. Affirmative action adjusts to that injustice and thereby reduces the pressure to correct it.
Thirdly, affirmative action reinforces a particularly elitist way of regarding American higher education by strengthening the perception that the top colleges that practice affirmative action are the only ones really worth attending—that it would be a disaster for black and Latino students admitted through affirmative action programs if they had to attend colleges a few rungs down, now attended by students of all races who may have the same grades and test scores as they.
Ironically, the existence of affirmative action itself shows that the differences in quality between institutions at different ranks in the conventionally perceived prestige rankings are a good deal smaller than this perception. In the Fisher decision, Justice Thomas cited figures that the mean SAT score of black admits to the University of Texas is 1524, of whites 1914. That’s an almost 400-point difference. If black students with much lower scores are able to thrive at the University of Texas (and other figures show that affirmative action admits do graduate from their institutions at the same percentage as whites), this implies that many students now attending lower-ranked institutions would also be able to thrive at the higher-ranked ones were they to be admitted. (Indeed, it is a standard finding that black and Latino students do worse, in colleges to which they are admitted, than their scores would predict.) This suggests that the differences in quality and capabilities of students in unequally-ranked institutions is much smaller than the rankings, and the way the public understands them, imply.
The problem with affirmative action is not with the practice itself, which I support, but with the implication that it is striking an important blow for racial justice, while in fact it diverts attention from the true sources of racial injustice in education—the failure to support state universities and community colleges, the failure to take the radical egalitarian steps necessary to make blacks and Latinos competitive with Asians and whites in primary and secondary school, and an overstating and overemphasis on the U.S. News and World Report status rankings among colleges. The situation makes me wonder whether, if race preferences were abolished and the percentages of blacks and Latinos in now-elite universities were, say, cut in half, this unacceptable situation would prompt colleges and universities, and the society more generally, to get serious about racial injustice in education.
[i] In the United States affirmative action applies in both educational admission and hiring contexts. I am concerned here only with the educational, and my criticisms do not apply to affirmative action in hiring, including hiring in colleges and universities. In the international context affirmative action (which has different names in different countries) is generally understood to be aimed at correcting a history of racial or gender inequality and injustice. But in the United States the Supreme Court has, since 1978, declared this understanding unconstitutional (subject to very minor qualifications), so educational affirmative action is understood to rest on considerations of “diversity.”
[ii] In the early years of educational affirmative action in the United States (late 1960’s and 1970’s), it was understood and practiced in a more justice-oriented, rectificatory way, and its beneficiaries were often less privileged members of the benefiting groups. It was this understanding that was ruled unconstitutional in the 1978 Bakke decision, referred to in the previous note.
Lawrence Blum is Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and Education and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.