Without Affirmative Action, How Will We Correct Discrimination Against Black Students and Employees?

Renewed discussions about the validity of affirmative action threaten to derail a practice that has granted BIPOC students access to historically white spaces.

Harvard University Black Commencement
Photo: Keith Bedford/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

This week we've seen the beginning of many discussions about affirmative action. First, the Supreme Court announced that it will decide whether it's acceptable to consider race when admitting students at American universities, by focusing on policies at Havard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Not long after, President Biden announced his intention to appoint a Black woman to the Supreme Court after Justice Stephen G. Breyer announced his retirement plans.

It seems that we are asking, in many different ways, what role race and gender should play in many different kinds of admissions. If affirmative action is deemed unconstitutional in American schools, how will that decision reverberate across other areas, like employment? And, without affirmative action, what tools do we have to correct the historical, yet continuous, disparities in education and employment?

Proponents of affirmative action say it's a set of procedures that considers race as one of many factors in a students' applications to increase the access historically excluded groups have to higher education. Challengers have criticized the practice since it began more than 40 years ago, often claiming that affirmative action is preferential treatment for students of color, often implying they wouldn't qualify otherwise.

At their core, most challenges to affirmative action are rooted in the belief that they give candidates who are Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) a competitive edge over those who are white. Often, opponents say that race shouldn't be a factor in admissions decisions because it amounts to preferential treatment. They say considering race is evidence of reverse discrimination.

But is this true? Or is it discriminatory not to consider factors like race and gender?

Edward Blum, the litigant bringing the Harvard and UNC cases to the Supreme Court, was also behind 2003 efforts to weaken the effectiveness of the Voter Rights Act Of 1965, an important step towards equality for Black Americans.

There's little information on how affirmative action benefits Black students specifically. But there's evidence that affirmative action-style policies help increase the access that historically marginalized groups have to an education. A national ban on affirmative action could erase the little progress we've made, with a particular impact on Black and Hispanic communities.

California's 24-year ban on affirmative action proved this: the number of Black, Latinx, and Native American students at California colleges and universities fell to record lows. Affirmative action bans impact graduate admission, too, contributing to fewer students of color in already underrepresented graduate fields like engineering, natural sciences, and social sciences.

Likewise, affirmative action isn't just a conversation in the U.S.—research from abroad suggests that affirmative action incentivizes students and these policies make college feel more attainable for those who would otherwise be overlooked.

The biggest question is this: If affirmative action is gutted, what tools do we have to correct the glaring admissions and hiring discrimination that Black communities face? There's little choice but to wait and find out. But if affirmative action ends, we're taking steps backwards when we're already behind..

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