This fall the United States Supreme Court will yet again hear arguments on the controversial case, Fisher v. University of Texas, regarding the legality of affirmative action polices in college admissions. As the Supreme Court ponders a decision that will have a huge impact on access to a quality and affordable college education for black and brown students, the nation should reflect on the original intent of affirmative action polices and the need for the law in higher education today.
When discussing the benefits of affirmative action policies in higher education a lot of advocates reference the importance of having a diverse student body (which exposes students to different races and cultural perspectives they will undoubtedly encounter in the workplace). Promoting diversity, although a critical component of affirmative action, was not the original intent of such laws. Two additional reasons why race conscious admission polices in higher education are still needed today are: (1) to rectify past effects of discrimination on people of color and (2) to ensure that implicit biases do not obstruct black and brown students’ access to a quality college education.
Affirmative action grew out of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and was meant to remedy past effects of discrimination on people of color. Today, more than five decades since Brown v. Board of Education and James Meredith became the first black student admitted to the University of Mississippi, black and brown students in the nation still receive a far worse preK-12 public school eduation than white children. Comprehensive data released last year by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights tells us this:
- “A quarter of high schools with the highest percentage of black and Latino
students do not offer any Algebra II courses, while a third of those schools do not
have any chemistry classes.”
- “Black students are more than four times as likely as white students — and Latino
students are twice as likely — to attend schools where one out of every five
teachers does not meet all state teaching requirements.”
- “Black, Latino, American Indian and Native Alaskan students are three times as
likely as white students to attend schools with higher concentrations of first-year
- “As early as preschool, black students face harsher discipline than other students
-[which takes kids away from valuable in-class learning time]- ”.
- “More than 70 percent of white students attend schools that offer a full range of
math and science courses — including algebra, biology, calculus, chemistry,
geometry and physics — just over half of all black students have access to those
courses. Just over two-thirds of Latinos attend schools with the full range of math
and science courses, and less than half of American Indian and Native Alaskan
students are able to enroll in as many high-level math and science courses as
their white peers.”
The data paints a clear picture of the unequal education students of color still receive in the United States. Affirmative action polices that take into account race – as one of many considerations – in college admission does its important job of ensuring that kids who are getting the raw end in K-12 are not also cheated out of access to a quality college education. College admission systems should not be “color-blind” until students of all races receive an equitable K-12 education.
Watch this video by the African American Policy Forum that encapsulates how centuries of racial discrimination in our nation produced an unequal playing field for students of color, where they start out behind.
The second reason why I think affirmative action polices are necessary even in today’s age are because of implicit biases. I’ll sum up implicit bias this way: centuries of attitudes and behaviors in the United States that black and brown students are ‘less than’ their white counterparts have affected our understanding, actions, and behavior towards individuals based on their skin color. These biases manifest in many ways; some examples include holding the opinion of a white person higher than that of a black person or how we judge intelligence and acceptable social behavior based off of the standards of one segment of society. In education, it often takes the form of teachers, mostly white teachers, having lower expectations for black and Hispanic students than Asian or white students. This is harmful to students: Evidence has shown that teachers, if they know the race of students, will unconsciously grade black and brown students harsher than white and Asian students. Implicit biases are also evident in school discipline disparities. As a nation we are utterly blind to these inherent biases (the same ones that make khaki pants and a grey hoodie worn by a black man suspicious looking). We must continue to acknowledge race in higher education to ensure that subtle prejudices don’t obstruct the advancement of black and brown students.
Access to higher education goes a long way in helping to end cycles of racism. When any student gains admission to college that is a cause for celebration not a court case. Opponents and proponents of race-based affirmation action can all celebrate together the day that the law is no longer necessary. But that day is not today.