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The Downfall of Affirmative Action

By Isabel Pulgarin

Photo Credit to Pexels

College admissions can be understood as a race. Qualities like SAT/ACT scores, school rank, and extracurriculars tally up points for the best student candidates. And for the most part, many see this as a fair way to decide who should be accepted. But when it comes to factoring race and circumstance, there should be no unwarranted preference over another.

The debate on whether affirmative action makes for more inclusion has since reached the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) and came to a full stop after the justices struck down the practice in June.

The Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), an advocacy group mostly made up of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, won their lawsuits against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill accusing them of discriminating against Asian-American applicants. Harvard assigned “personal” scores to measure applicants’ subjective characteristics of personality separate from academic scores to arguably balance out the number of students of Asian descent. This ultimately creates an unconstitutional racial quota as Asian-American students scored lower in these personal scores than other applicants.

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This ruling removed the use of race as a deciding factor in admissions.

“The student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual—not on the basis of race,” said Chief Justice John G. Roberts for the majority.

Affirmative action was first created as a legal way for schools and workplaces to achieve their slated goals of diversity. It was initially with good intentions that “special considerations” were given to racial minorities back when prejudice and discrimination explicitly held them back. However, the mismanagement of racial and ethnic quotas over time ruined this hope.

Special access to opportunities in education and employment sometimes translates to equality of outcome rather than opportunity. Many paint affirmative action in a negative light as a thumb skewing a scale, but others paint it as a head start in the race of admissions against those more privileged.

“Affirmative action exists to redress historic injustices,” say many reports, like a couple of stitches trying to repair the widest wounds.

Everything can be traced back to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a 1941 anti-discrimination executive order on employment by defense contractors. The larger social movements of civil rights, gay rights, and women’s liberation during the ‘50s and ‘60s motivated inclusion and equal representation in the mainstream.

Then President John F. Kennedy in 1961 signed an executive order that formally used “affirmative action” to ensure equal treatment in the workplace.

After the assassination of Kennedy and the transfer of power, President Lyndon B. Johnson remained committed to civil rights, passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibited segregation in the workplace and established the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to enforce anti-discrimination laws. Expansions were made over time to include the advancement of the disabled, women in collegiate athletics and others, and the support of businesses largely owned and staffed by racial and ethnic minorities and women.

Affirmative action wasn’t universally welcomed then and ultimately challenged for the first time in 1978 between Allan Bakke and the University of California, Davis Medical School. After applying and being rejected twice, he sued the university for “reverse discrimination.” UC Davis had a quota of spots reserved for minorities to make up for past racial discrimination and Bakke argued he had a better academic history than the minority students accepted over him. He won after SCOTUS found UC Davis had unconstitutionally used a racial quota system, however, race was established as a permissible factor in college admissions because of “the educational benefits that flow from an ethnically diverse student body.”

Universities can only use affirmative action to explicitly create a diverse student body and not to address past discrimination. However, the practice became complicated to understand as quotas cannot be used, but concrete diversity goals must be.

Meanwhile, President Ronald Reagan’s Department of Labor commissioned a study that found affirmative action programs so far were effective. Between 1974 and 1980, minority employment among federal contractors increased by 20 percent and 15 percent for women. Businesses not subject to the federal program had diversity increase by 12 percent and two percent for women. This study was not released to the public during the Reagan administration.

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It wasn't until 2013 when the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard found states like Michigan, Nebraska, and Arizona where preferential treatment of minorities was publicly banned had a drop in workplace diversity. Representation of minorities and women fell at rates up to 37 percent.

Affirmative action in academia began to formally break down by two 2003 rulings over the admissions of the University of Michigan. As long as other factors, like participation in extracurriculars that involve identity, were also considered, admissions were allowed to consider race. However, the use of a point system to reward minority applications violated the 14th Amendment’s vow of equal protection to all citizens.

Opponents of affirmative action have long cited this clause. But defenders of affirmative action note that the clause was created to protect the rights of black people after the Civil War, ensuring societal diversity time and time again in landmark cases you learned about in your history classes.

Being inclusive as a society doesn’t mean we have to be colorblind, as SCOTUS has ruled repeatedly. Implicit biases and prejudices haven’t been eradicated in America even after all the progress that’s been made. Housing and school districts are still segregated, and children of minority groups still face major disadvantages in life so creating an inclusive system requires recognition of race.

Measures like affirmative action are still needed to senior communications major Dimitrious Bumpus.

“I disagree with [SCOTUS] abolishing it. I think it’s necessary, and it’s going to be necessary for quite some time,” he said.

In the end, affirmative action was struck down over time because it was largely integrated as a misled rule rather than a principle. But colleges like Barry who instill the value of diversity as a core principle even outside of admissions help students flourish.

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