How Undoing Affirmative Action Hurts America’s Colleges

July 5, 2018, 9:00 PM UTC

On Tuesday, the Trump administration announced plans to revoke guidelines that encourage considering race in the college admissions process as a way of promoting diversity, putting American education right back to the 1950s.

This latest scheme, at least partly guided by an irrational desire to undo any policy advanced by the Barack Obama administration and pandering to a white nationalist base, alleges that the existing guidelines are “unnecessary, outdated, inconsistent with existing law, or otherwise improper.” However, claims of overreach don’t match the data. Since 1980, whites and Asians have been overrepresented at the most selective colleges, while Latinos and blacks have been underrepresented, with the black student population essentially level during the past four decades.

The argument that affirmative action has gone too far falls flat. In fact, it hasn’t gone far enough.

Although there are gains at less selective institutions, the colleges and universities that produce an outsized share of leaders in technology, law, academia, and business still have few Native American, black, and Latino students.

Affirmative action in higher education has been scrutinized by the highest courts since 1978, and there is a corpus of case law about racial preferences in the workplace going back about as long. Universities, Fortune 500 businesses, and our military have all made the same arguments: In an increasingly diverse nation and world, the opportunities for leadership and advancement need to be broadened to include a richer mosaic of the American population.

But at the same time, the more recent efforts by litigants at some of the nation’s leading universities to advance Asian Americans as victims of affirmative action should be viewed with suspicion: Southeast Asians have some of the lowest levels of postsecondary attainment in the U.S. Confronted by similar socioeconomic and educational challenges as Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans, these Asian-American students benefit from holistic admissions policies that consider multiple factors beyond test scores.

What’s more, Asian Americans broadly support affirmative action; the 2016 National Asian American Survey found that 64% of respondents favored affirmative action programs. In fact, in an affirmative action case that went to the Supreme Court, 160 Asian-American groups filed amicus briefs supporting the University of Texas’ use of an affirmative action program. Laboni Hoq, one of the brief authors, stated that “such broad support for race conscious admissions policies sends a clear message that [Asians and Pacific Islanders] overwhelmingly support these policies and will not be used as a racial wedge to disenfranchise other communities of color.”

It’s irrefutable that there have been significant gains in education and wealth for black and Latino Americans. However, factors such as household income, homeownership, access to high-quality schools, and intergenerational wealth transfer demonstrate that equal access to opportunity remains elusive. Absent structural efforts to address these inequities, affirmative action is one strategy to improve the integration of historically marginalized communities into the mainstream of American economic and educational opportunity.


The other troubling aspect of the administration’s scrutiny of affirmative action is its complete silence regarding other forms of preference in admissions. Athletes, musicians, and the children of alumni often receive preferences in college admissions. Much has been written about how the president’s own children have benefitted from their father’s privilege. It’s highly dubious that a highly scrutinized, narrowly focused strategy to increase racial diversity is once again under duress, but the administration leaves unperturbed other admissions preferences.

To attack a policy that has increased access to members of historically marginalized communities is the essence of a mendacious, nativist bullhorn that further contributes to the rifts in American society that our current political leadership seems all too happy to exploit. We should see this latest volley for what it is: a pandering promise to vanquish a nonexistent foe, but in reality another effort to further divide an already fractured nation.

Richard J. Reddick is an associate professor of educational leadership and policy at The University of Texas at Austin, where he also holds courtesy appointments in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies, the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, and the Warfield Center for African and African American Studies.

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