The Next Affirmative Action

chicago@chicagodefender.com | 8/8/2013, 10:33 p.m.

Editor's Note: This is the fourth article in an 11-part Series on Race in America - Past and Present sponsored by the Kellogg Foundation. It has been edited for space considerations.

Affirmative action as we know it is dying. A growing number of states have moved to prohibit public universities from considering race in admissions, and the U.S. Supreme Court recently made a decision in an anti-affirmative action lawsuit that left little doubt about where the Court's conservative majority stands.

Less than a decade after the Court upheld racial admissions preferences in Grutter v. Bollinger, newer jurists like Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts seem ready to call into question and refuse to reaffirm a policy that has helped generations of minority students grab a rung on the ladder of opportunity.

The Court's decision to remand the case - Fisher v. University of Texas - to the U. S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit is apparently a temporary victory. It is particularly odious given the college admissions apparatus it could leave in place if ever struck down. Elite colleges warp and corrupt the meritocratic admissions process in a wide variety of ways.

Academically substandard athletes, for example, are allowed in so they can play for the amusement of alumni and help shore up the fund-raising base. While some men's football and basketball players come from low-income and minority households, many athletes at the highly selective colleges where affirmative action really matters engage in sports like crew and lacrosse that are associated with White, privileged backgrounds. Colleges also give preference to the children of legacies, professors, celebrities, politicians, and people who write large checks to the general fund. All of these groups are also disproportionately wealthy and White.

But affirmative action is also dying because it has strayed far from its original purpose. The justification for affirmative action the Court used in Grutter is that schools have a compelling interest in increasing racial diversity because students benefit from learning among people from disparate backgrounds. Affirmative action, once a pillar of the nation's work on behalf of the historically oppressed, is now allowable only on the grounds that it's good for White people.

This allowed Roberts to harangue lawyers defending the University of Texas's affirmative action policies by asking them how much diversity, exactly, they were shooting for, knowing that any specific answer could be struck down as an illegal quota. Perpetual swing vote and de facto King of America Anthony Kennedy, meanwhile, made the sensible critique that UT was giving preference to wealthy minority students, since the university presumably gets more than enough of the poor kind through a state law granting automatic admission to students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school class.

Regardless of how the Court ultimately rules, it's time to return affirmative action to its original purpose: leveling the college playing field for students who have been unjustly denied a fair chance at success. And the most important part of that project is expanding this idea far beyond elite colleges and universities.