Defending Affirmative Action

Professor Khiara Bridges on the origins of affirmative action in the US: It’s not about diversity—it’s about remedy.

Professor Khiara M. BridgesIt looks like the Trump administration is getting ready to attack race-based affirmative action in higher education.

Last week, media outlets reported that a memo had been circulated to the Justice Department’s civil rights division soliciting people interested in “investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions.” It takes no great effort to deduce that the colleges and universities that may be the targets of “investigations and possible litigation” are the ones that alter their admissions criteria so as to admit a meaningful number of black, Latinx, and indigenous students—students from historically disadvantaged racial groups.

Race-based affirmative action has always been controversial in light of the fact that in order to distribute some seats in an incoming class to black, Latinx, and indigenous students, some seats have to be distributed away from students who would otherwise be admitted: white and Asian students. It is for this reason that opponents of such efforts sometimes deride them by calling them instances of reverse racism. Supporters of affirmative action deny this description, defending the programs on the basis of diversity. They say that affirmative action facilitates racial diversity in colleges and universities. And diversity, they say, is good for everyone.

Diversity is a dreadfully weak defense of affirmative action. This is true although the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, which upheld the constitutionality of affirmative action programs that use race in admissions in order to pursue the educational benefits that flow from a racially diverse student body, makes it necessary for affirmative action’s defenders to speak in terms of diversity. Nevertheless, diversity makes it easy to forget why the nation first thought to experiment with race-conscious policies in college admissions and hiring. Thus, it may be helpful to recount the history of affirmative action: it may be helpful to remember and remind ourselves that affirmative action was, and still is, a mechanism that is designed to remedy the historical wrongs that have been inflicted upon black, Latinx, and indigenous people.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s is rightfully understood as the birthplace of affirmative action. While those who participated in this social movement conceptualized intentional racial discrimination as a key mechanism that worked to exclude black people from the life of the nation and to relegate them to the bottom of social, cultural, political, and economic hierarchies, they appreciated that other processes functioned to produce the same results. Indeed, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59) argued that even if intentional racial discrimination was never again practiced in the country, black poverty, the “historic and institutionalized consequences of color,” would persist. Hence, thinkers of the day understood that formal legal equality for black people would not result in substantive equality for this historically disadvantaged group.

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