The future of affirmative action is once again at stake after the U.S. Supreme Court this week agreed to hear cases brought by Students for Fair Admissions against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. The suit alleges that Harvard discriminates against Asian American students and that UNC discriminates against white and Asian American applicants. These criticisms of college admissions policies are not new, but the deeply conservative Supreme Court agreeing to hear those criticisms could signal the beginning of the end for affirmative action.
Eliminating affirmative action policies would have devastating consequences on students from marginalized communities.
Eliminating affirmative action policies in higher education would have devastating consequences on students from marginalized communities. These policies, which conservatives have tried to eliminate since their inception, are designed to help redress centuries of educational and economic inequality in the United States.
During a June 4, 1965, speech at Howard University, President Lyndon B. Johnson, whose administration introduced such policies, provided his rationale for them. He explained: “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”
Johnson’s speech underscored the need for affirmative action policies, especially in the realm of education where Black and brown students had faced (and continue to face) an array of challenges. In a recent email to me, Crystal Sanders, an associate professor of history at Pennsylvania State University and the author of "A Chance for Change: Head Start and Mississippi's Black Freedom Struggle," wrote, “Race-conscious affirmative action policies in higher education have ensured that our colleges and universities are diverse and afford every student the opportunity to learn alongside people from various walks of life.” To that point she added: “These policies, which consider race as one factor among many in admissions decisions, are a necessary response to our nation’s long history of race-based educational inequality.”
A brief overview of the history of education in this country underscores the vital role affirmative action has played in addressing those historic inequities, a process that is by no means complete. The education of enslaved people in the South was prohibited, and after emancipation, white people opposed to new educational opportunities for the emancipated burned down hundreds of Black schools. Those schools that survived served as proof that separate was never equal. During the 1890s, for example, at Black schools in Bolivar County, Mississippi, there were 43 students per teacher compared to 17 students per teacher in white schools. Black teachers were paid a little more than half of what white teachers were paid.
According to Sanders, who is completing a book on Black Southerners' efforts to enroll in graduate and professional education programs during the Jim Crow era, “Many Southern states denied Black citizens access to post-baccalaureate study at their flagship institutions until the 1950s or later.” But it wasn’t just the South. “Many elite schools in the North, Sanders said, “had policies admitting no more than a handful of Black students annually.”
White resistance to integration continued even after the Supreme Court, in its landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, ordered the desegregation of public schools. These battles extended to K-12 schools in the North. In 1957, the same year that the Little Rock Nine in Arkansas integrated Central High School in the face of white violence and intimidation, activist Mae Mallory joined with eight other mothers in Harlem to boycott three junior high schools and sue the New York City Board of Education. In December 1958, Judge Justine Polier ruled in their favor — a victory that challenged the de facto practice of segregation in the North.
White resistance to integration continued even after the Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of public schools.
These hard-won battles laid the groundwork for the introduction of affirmative action policies in higher education, which aimed to address educational disparity. As Eddie Cole, an associate professor of higher education and history at UCLA, and the author of "The Campus Color Line: College Presidents and the Struggle for Black Freedom" explains, “Affirmative action originated as a series of programs and initiatives — not just race-conscious admissions — aimed at systemwide change across all of higher education.” These programs, Cole adds, “called for investment in more colleges and universities to address racial disparities in the broader society.”
This investment began to pay off almost immediately. Affirmative action drastically increased the number of Black students enrolled in higher education: from an estimated 227,000 in 1960 — before the use of such programs — to more than 1,000,000 by 1982. These gains also coincided with the development of departments and programs that focused on the experiences and history of marginalized groups in response to the demands of student activists.
Since its passage in the 1960s, affirmative action has been under attack. If the Supreme Court’s decision to hear the cases against Harvard and UNC signals an end to the practice, there will be negative implications for Black students and other marginalized groups. “Ending affirmative action policies in higher education,” Sanders warns, “would be detrimental to ensuring that our colleges and universities are racially diverse and comprised of the best and brightest students that our country and world have to offer.”
Today the majority of Black K-12 students attend schools that are predominantly populated by other students of color. Black students are also more likely to attend schools where many community members are classified as low-income or poor. This has important implications because, according to a 2019 analysis by EdBuild, a New Jersey-based research group that advocates for school funding, districts with mostly students of color received $54 billion in local tax funding in 2016 while districts with mostly white students got $77 billion.
Recent studies also indicate a decrease in Black students’ enrollment in higher education. In 2020, The Education Trust found that at 60 percent of the country’s top 101 public colleges and universities, Black enrollment has declined. Researchers are not sure how to explain that decline. In examining the enrollment numbers for Black college students from the 2014-2015 school year to 2018-2019, the Center for American Progress found a decline in enrollment of about 200,000 students.
As Johnson passionately argued in his Howard speech, “It is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.”
Affirmative action policies have been vital to the ongoing process of leveling the playing field for marginalized students. Dismantling them would hinder the progress of students of color and in so doing deepen inequality in the United States.