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POV: Defending Affirmative Action

It’s not about diversity—it’s about remedy

24

It 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.

Accordingly, activists certainly celebrated the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed race-based discrimination (as well as discrimination on the basis of color, religion, sex, and national origin) in significant areas of American life. However, they conceptualized this piece of legislation as a necessary, but not sufficient, step in the fight for racial justice. Also required were efforts to dismantle the race-neutral processes that destroyed black people’s ability to participate themselves as equals into the body politic. They understood that exclusion from job opportunities and educational institutions was as much a function of intentional discrimination as it was of the way that “merit” and “qualifications” had been defined.

The Equal Opportunity Act, which was the legislative piece of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, complemented the Civil Rights Act inasmuch as it implemented job training and social welfare programs that were designed to help the poor acquire skills that could help them participate in the labor market, and ideally, emerge from poverty. But still, many felt that the programs that the Equal Opportunity Act implemented were insufficient to realize what the civil rights activists demanded: full-throated racial justice. They offered race-based affirmative action programs as the vehicle for making tangible that demand. It was these programs to which President Johnson referred in a speech on Howard University’s campus in June 1965, noting that the country must enter the “next and the more profound stage in the battle for civil rights.”

Thus, affirmative action is not about diversity. It is about remedy. It is about addressing this nation’s sad, sorry, and sustained history of racism against historically disadvantaged racial groups. As prominent legal scholar Charles Lawrence has written: “The original vision of affirmative action proceeded from the perspective of the subordinated. [When the] students and community activists who fought for affirmative action in the 1960s and ’70s demanded affirmative action—when they sat-in and sued and took over buildings and went on hunger strikes and closed down universities—they sought redress for their communities.”

Suffice it to say that we have not redressed the racial wounds that have been inflicted on black, Latinx, and indigenous people (as well as on many Asian communities). The quality of the lives of many people of color is too poor—and their lives too short—to suggest otherwise.

This is not to argue that affirmative action is adequate—is the only thing that we need to do to right our racial wrongs. It is not. We need to make many other interventions to remove the race-based burdens that devastatingly high numbers of black, Latinx, and indigenous people bear. However, the Trump administration is not interested in intervening so as to improve the lives of this country’s truly disadvantaged groups. Instead, it is gearing up to attack one powerful, if ultimately insufficient, effort to produce a nation that reflects the commitments to equality and justice contained in its founding documents.

Khiara M. Bridges, a School of Law professor of law and a College of Arts & Sciences professor of anthropology, can be reached at kmb73@bu.edu. The author of Reproducing Race: An Ethnography of Pregnancy as a Site of Racialization (University of California Press, 2011), she has written widely on the issues of race, class, reproductive rights, and reproductive justice. Her latest book, The Poverty of Privacy Rights (Stanford University Press, 2017), explores the moral construction of poverty and its effects on poor mothers’ privacy rights.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.eduBU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.

24 Comments

24 Comments on POV: Defending Affirmative Action

  • lol on 08.09.2017 at 8:29 am

    If affirmative action is about righting the wrongs that have been committed in the past, at what point will it have successfully done its job? When can we move past this to admissions being based on merit only?

    Also, you say that “we have not redressed the racial wounds that have been inflicted on black, Latinx, and indigenous people (as well as on many Asian communities)”. If affirmative action is about healing our past, and Asian communities have suffered in the past, why are seats distributed away from Asian students?

    • Accountability on 08.09.2017 at 9:10 am

      lol: “At what point will [affirmative action] have successfully done its job?”

      “Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.” – Ta-nehisi Coates

      Affirmative Action is only 50+ years young. It has a long way to go before its “done its job.” I think you’d benefit greatly from reading the article “The Case for Reparations,” by Ta-nehisi Coates. Try to go beyond the title and learn something from it. If you learn nothing than you’re a loss cause. Godspeed.

      • lol on 08.09.2017 at 9:48 am

        Thanks for the patronizing tone! Really appreciate that.

        Unfortunately you didn’t actually answer any of my questions. I am aware of the terrible past in America, but my question is at what point can you say that affirmative action has corrected these wrongs? Simply saying that there’s a “long way to go” means nothing.

        I also disagree with the idea of “moral debts” especially those which are carried by groups of people rather than individuals.

        • Troy on 08.09.2017 at 3:57 pm

          Accountability has no answer, likely. If he or she were to provide a cap where they believe the equality line should lie for education, prison systems, income, etc. we could at least have a debate.

          I find many people have a hard time differentiating from equality and equity. There is certainly equity in this country, i.e., a system based on merit. It isn’t always like that, and when it’s not, the organizations or people responsible should be condemned publicly. I find it interesting that the author of this article presented no evidence that affirmative action actually works to lift these groups out of poverty. Evidence would typically find the contrary. Black unemployment is the highest its ever been since the time of the Great Depression.

          Inequality does not necessarily mean inequity. A group of people may, in fact, earn more or less than another group because that group chooses different fields to go into. There is possibly a list of many statistical disparities where not even a plausible case for discrimination can be made. Here are a few:
          1. More than 4/5 of the doughnut shops in California are owned by people of Cambodian ancestry.
          2. In the early twentieth century, 4/5 of the world’s sugar-processing machinery was built in Scotland.
          3. As of 1937, 91% of all greengrocers’ licenses in Vancouver were held by people of Japanese ancestry.
          4. Of the 16,000 workers who built the East Africa Railway line from the port of Mombasa to Lake Victoria, 15,000 were from India.
          5. Although less than 5% of Indonesia’s population, ethnic Chinese have at one time run 3/4 of its 200 largest businesses.

          These are just a few from Thomas Sowell’s book, “The Quest for Cosmic Justice”. So, why are different groups of people so disproportionately represented in so many times and places? Perhaps the simplest answer is that there was no reason to have expected them to be statistically similar in the first place.

    • nora on 08.09.2017 at 10:47 am

      It is very interesting to see that Prof. included Asian students in the same category as white. Asian communities didn’t have the privileged history like White, and they were also discriminated against in the history and now.

  • Margaret on 08.09.2017 at 9:00 am

    Thank you for providing meaningful context for this issue that is so often misunderstood.

    I believe many see Affirmative Action as a component of “PC culture” (a term which is, in itself, deeply flawed due to how many conceptualize it). This piece helps advance the truth: that Affirmative Action does not create unfair advantage for people of color in an attempt to reach a buzzword of diversity, it attempts to dismantle the unfair advantage that white people currently have.

    Thank you for this essential commentary, Dr. Bridges.

  • Month on 08.09.2017 at 9:06 am

    As an outsider and a non-white student here, I did not see the problems of the US today are majorly caused by the race and gender issues but rather caused by the class polarization in your society. It is hard to say if the AA policy truly helped those who really need help, but one thing can be confirmed is that your policies, your history, and your good will, are becoming the playthings of the politicians you voted for. Sorry for the Asians, they may be the biggest loser in the game that they do not want to play at all.

    • KK on 08.09.2017 at 12:45 pm

      Exactly, Asians are the biggest losers in the game. I am Chinese myself so I certainly have my own bias, but I see some interesting facts. For one, white people have committed racial “sins” in the past, not just to blacks, Latinos, native Americans, but Asians (e.g. the Chinese Exclusion Act). But when it comes to “repaying the debt”, some seats have to be distributed away from white AND ASIAN students. Makes perfect sense if you ask me.

  • Nate on 08.09.2017 at 9:52 am

    Why not instead address the very wrongs trying to be remedied directly, rather than creating a system that purposefully makes it more difficult for certain people to get into college based on race, a characteristic over which the individual has no control? Have people forgotten that there are white communities just as poor as the black and latinx communities mentioned here, that are receiving no help because they were born wrong? Affirmative action is a step away from equality because in order to create advantages for minorities, it disadvantages young white and Asian folks who are likely not even old enough to have contributed to any system that oppresses the very minorities now receiving preferential treatment. If we want to remedy the very real wounds against black and latinx communities, let’s try and do it without disadvantaging white and Asian people based on their race, otherwise the civil rights movement taught us nothing. An eye for an eye just leaves the whole world blind, as the saying goes.

  • Ari on 08.09.2017 at 10:09 am

    If righting wrongs is the motive, then the world owes Jews payback for 2000 years of persecution.

  • yun on 08.09.2017 at 10:36 am

    how can it come 50 years are not sufficient enough to show some obvious result? China just started to reformation in late 80’s, yet, now it becomes the world’s 2nd largest economics. Don’t forget, it used to be like today’s North Korean when it starts – so what’s the key – the key lies in that the good policy motivates individual’s inner potentials, but the bad one does the opposite.

  • Jiang on 08.09.2017 at 10:40 am

    Affirmative Action jeopardizes Asian communities, which was the victims of racism policies in the history. They should be given the same priorities as have being given to black, Latinx, and indigenous people.

  • Andrew Wolfe on 08.09.2017 at 11:06 am

    I wish the author were candid enough to just demand reparations already.

    “Affirmative action” was always a morally bankrupt and politically craven calculation demonstrably at odds with MLK’s vision of a world in which people are judged by the content of their character rather than by the color of their skin. And, of course, as others have noted, right now those suffering the worst from affirmative action are hard-working, high-achieving Asian immigrants who had nothing to do with any of the deplorable racial policies of the past.

    Worst of all, and many black commentators outside the left-wing thought bubble have criticized this, is that affirmative action seriously taints the achievements of black people. This is not manifested in additional racist attitudes by non-blacks; instead, it is by forcing blacks to internalize the judgment that they cannot make it on their own. I find the patronizing condescension towards black Americans in affirmative action just as bigoted and reprehensible as anti-miscegenation laws.

    I’ve watched affirmative action fail for thirty-plus years. Affirmative action throttled black equality in its cradle, and large numbers of black Americans are effectively worse for it, not better. Institutionalizing a failing “remedy” with the hope it actually finally remedies something is no remedy at all.

  • yun on 08.09.2017 at 11:59 am

    No, I won’t just limit its harm to Chinese community or any other so-called advantageous groups, it is actually to all communities. Since it discredits those who are really outstanding in all the races. It is an insult to those race groups whom this is trying to help, and also shows partiality to those groups who are thought to be in advantages. It hurts both sides’ feeling – for it is not based on the very core of American value – equal opportunity to success through hardworking and fair competition based on merits and dignity of each individual. All kinds of manipulation to impose negative influence on such noble rights shall be condemned. It hurts American in a fundamental way. From the point of long run, it destroys the greatness of United States. So that’s why anyone really loves this country, shall stop and give it a real serious reflection on supporting this.

  • A bucket of fish on 08.09.2017 at 1:37 pm

    I wanted to second a comment made by another individual here. If we are to say AA is a moral and ethical system, which I am not, but if we were to there would still need to be a metric bu which we can measure its success. AA has no metric to determine at which point we can remove it, which only lends itself to being abused for far longer than it would be “needed.” In such a case, EVEN IF you believe AA is just, you should still be in favor of removing the current system in favor of one with clear metrics. If this is not something you desire, you only contribute to the idea that AA is not about achieving any sense of equality, but rather is merely an attempt by certain (but not all, because apparently Asians are privileged now) minority groups to lash out at the majority.

    My point is simply that the current system is not suitable for achieving any long term benefits. Any form of discrimination based on anything other than merit should be dealt with very cautiously, lest its creators become the oppressors they claim to oppose.

  • S on 08.09.2017 at 2:12 pm

    From a BU professor, even writing an opinion without the slightest bit of reference is a shame to this institution. Further, we as a society need to more carefully consider our social media activities….does it edify and educate? Is it truly objective? Is it based on research or relevant experience? Just because we can post something doesn’t mean we should. Is regulating race possible? When will “enough be enough” and who determines that destination? These type of opinions offer no solution and put wind in the sails of an increasingly angry society on all sides…that is an inherent and unhealthy fact easy for all to see worsening during the historic Obama presidency (Geraghty, 2016). Affirmative action is an eye for eye approach that will never fix the real crux of the problem, the morality of this country. A more dire root cause is that 67% of blacks and 42% of Latinos in our current generation have been forced to grow up with only one parent, normally without a father figure, while whites are at 25% and Asians represent the lowest at 16% (Casey Foundation, 2011-2015). The overwhelming success of Asians in this country is astounding and 20% above whites (Pew, 2013). While obviously not insurmountable, broken families are sub-optimal and debilitating to a child’s chances of success and the loving discipline required to provide a foundation (Lee and McLanahan, 2015). Financially, Married couples also enjoy a marriage premium of at least $12,500 (Wilcox and Lerman, 2014). You mentioned Dr. MLK which I find relevant. Interestingly, your institution actually investigated MLK on plagiarism to review the credibility and revocation of his degree (New York Times, 1991). I do agree he was a proponent of AA-type measures later in his life. Blake suggests he left his original message becoming more radical as he got older, even suggesting “occupy-like” movements – notably MLK was inclusive including poor white families (Blake, 2013). I would like to think he would have included Asians as well; I am married to a Korean myself.

    References:
    Casey Foundation (2011-2015. Children in single-parent families by race. Retrieved from: http://datacenter.kidscount.org/data/tables/107-children-in-single-parent-families-by#detailed/1/any/false/573,869,36,868,867/10,11,9,12,1,185,13/432,431
    Lee, D. and McLanahan,S. (2015, June 30). Family Structure Transitions and Child Development: Instability, Selection, and Population. US National Library of Health, NIH. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4902167/)
    Wilcox, B. and Lerman, R. (2014, October 28). For richer, for poorer: How family structures economic success in America. American Enterprise Institute. Retrieved from: http://www.aei.org/publication/for-richer-for-poorer-how-family-structures-economic-success-in-america/
    Geraghy, Jim. 2016, July 11. Remember Hope? National Review. Retrieved from: http://www.nationalreview.com/article/437667/president-obama-hope-2008s-optimism-2016s-tragedy
    Blake, John. 2013, January 13. CNN. Why Conservatives Call MLK Their Hero. Retrieved from: http://www.cnn.com/2013/01/19/us/mlk-conservative/index.html
    1991, October 11. Boston U. Panel Finds Plagiarism by Dr. King. The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/1991/10/11/us/boston-u-panel-finds-plagiarism-by-dr-king.html.
    2013, April 4. The Rise of Asian Americans. Pew Research. Retrieved from: http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2012/06/19/the-rise-of-asian-americans/

  • gerald collins on 08.09.2017 at 2:50 pm

    Should be based by class not race.

  • Jose Artigas on 08.09.2017 at 8:09 pm

    This is a good article overall, but I take issue with the statement that “… some seats have to be distributed away from students who would otherwise be admitted: white and Asian students.”

    This should be revised to say “MIGHT otherwise be admitted.” European Americans & Asians must also compete on merit — as do African, Hispanic & Native Americans.

    It’s not certain that Asians should be grouped together with whites in this manner. As others note here, Asians (including Asian Americans) have been discriminated against in the past. Perhaps that is changing, but European Americans still hold advantages over all other groups.

    As for the question raised about “When can we move past this to admissions being based on merit only?” The answer must be: when no one ever suffers from racial discrimination again. This can only be determined by groups that have endured it & still do, not by members of the offending groups.

    Finally, Thomas Sowell’s book may be better titled “The Quest for Cosmetic Justice!”

    • lol on 08.11.2017 at 8:47 am

      “when no one ever suffers from racial discrimination again”

      this is so illogical. whites and asains are suffering from racial discrimination right now because of AA

  • Why do you need my name? on 08.09.2017 at 10:39 pm

    I stopped reading this article after the words “reverse racism”. It’s appalling the a professor would write this. Why take away opportunities from more qualified students? Racism is a societal issue, it can’t be solved like this. AA is a racist policy. It’s funny that people always mention blacks and hispcanics getting the “opportunity they deserve”. Asians were treated just as baddy and yet, they are on the top of the educational totem pole. What people are ignoring is that it is a matter of culture.

  • an alum on 08.09.2017 at 10:42 pm

    This is pure ignorance towards Asians. You mentioned seats are taken away from Asian students as a result of AA in college admission. And later on, you are stating we have not redressed the racial wounds that have been inflicted on many Asian community. While this entire article is about AA & remedy, leaving this contradictory unaddressed made your argument self-refuting.

  • KK on 08.10.2017 at 3:23 am

    I agree with most points that Jose Artigas made above, but want to comment on one thing:

    When answering “when can we move past this to admissions being based on merit only”, Jose suggests “when no one ever suffers from racial discrimination again”. This is idealistic (which means it may never happen), and unfortunately, still does not suggest a measurable metric. And when that is to be determined solely by the enduring groups, in reality it could easily slip towards “when no one ever FEELS they suffer from racial discrimination”, which is in line with my observations. And when it comes to feelings, I’m not sure if we can ever move past it.

    These issues also manifest themselves when we talk about Asians, again. The narrative now is that Asians are more or less privileged along with whites, and they need to sacrifice in the system. But given the history of Asians being discriminated against, we then must conclude that the “debts” for Asians have been fully repayed. When did we actually achieve this, and how is it measured? In terms of feelings? Certainly not. Even the author suggests the racial wounds “on many Asian communities” have not been addressed. Or, does it mean that it’s been addressed for SOME Asian communities, while for other Asian communities it’s not? I can’t help but wonder what this has to do with the recent move of finely dividing the definition of “Asian” into subgroups. What an effort. But sadly, this special treatment might just make at least some Asians feel more discriminated against.

  • S on 08.10.2017 at 7:32 am

    You don’t fix racial inequality by giving special treatment to specific certain groups of people. You are teaching the youth today how to discriminate. The issue is lost cause for this generation. We need to work on making sure that the youth of today and future youths grow up knowing how to treat all equally.

  • Hope on 08.13.2017 at 7:48 pm

    I would expect a professor of law and anthropology to know that “Latino/a” is, for many, not a race but an ethnicity. There are many people who are *not* people of color but are still Latinos — where do they fit into the AA framework, according to the author?

    A major problem with the execution of AA today, and a lot of the reason for the backlash against it, is precisely that it tries to pretend that it can all be about race without regard to socioeconomic status.

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