Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take up a case on affirmative action for the first time since 2003. The earlier decision, Grutter v. Bollinger, said that state universities couldn’t develop racial quotas for admissions but that they could use race as one of multiple factors in determining which students to let in. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor provided the crucial fifth vote in Grutter, and, now that she has retired, it appears that the conservative majority on the court will have the votes to roll back that earlier decision.
Such a move would represent a tragic loss of opportunity for minority students nationwide. But the fact that the court is hearing this case at all provides us with an important chance to grapple with the question of exactly what affirmative action is meant to accomplish and whether it is the best means of meeting that goal in the long run. I don’t think it is.
First, a little background on the new case, known as Fisher v. University of Texas: A white student named Abigail Fisher applied to the University of Texas several years ago, but she was not admitted — and she claims that her rejection was due to her race. UT uses an admissions system that strives for racial diversity not just in each class but also in each major and at the classroom level. Fisher’s lawyers claim this system violates the Grutter principle.
But, more important, if the court ultimately decides that the University of Texas meets the Grutter standard, the lawyers have asked the court to review the constitutionality of their earlier decision. Given the composition of the court, this could blow the issue of affirmative action wide open.
In Grutter, O’Connor and the majority claimed — rightly — that affirmative action is a policy of planned obsolescence meant to eventually make itself unnecessary; O’Connor, for her part, envisioned that the process would take 25 years. If the court rules as it is expected to, it will be abandoning affirmative action only nine years into O’Connor’s timeline. But even if the court allows Grutter to stand, affirmative action will not be able to fulfill the purpose for which it is intended.
The goals of affirmative action are twofold. In the short run, it is meant to increase diversity in higher education; in the long run, it is meant to provide enough minority students with a decent college education to help eliminate racial inequality. While it does a good job of meeting its short-term objective, affirmative action on its own will not be enough to reverse the results of centuries of slavery and discrimination. The changes we need are more fundamental — and more difficult to implement — than just giving minority students a leg up in the college admissions process.
What we really need is an education system that doesn’t perpetuate the income- and race-based achievement gaps that develop from birth. Early childhood education in particular is critical: Preventing the gap from occurring in the first place is much cheaper — and much more effective — than trying to fix it later.
But wholesale reform of the American education system is a tall order. The measures necessary to make it happen — more academically qualified and better-paid teachers, improved working conditions in rural and inner-city schools, tenure reform, longer hours and school years for underperforming schools and better teacher training programs with yearlong residencies — will produce a great deal of partisan ire and have little chance of passing through the polarized Congress or all 50 state legislatures without a huge effort. Supporting affirmative action is a convenient way for politicians to gesture toward the problems of minority students without having to take on the Herculean task of reforming the education system as a whole. This needs to change.
For now, affirmative action must remain intact. Until politicians can work up the courage to tackle the bigger issue of education inequality, affirmative action is one of the few ways for disadvantaged students to catch up to their peers.
However, socioeconomic status — not race — should be the major factor involved. Race and class are, unfortunately, closely connected, so economic affirmative action would still help minorities. But it would also ensure that those who are no longer disadvantaged would not get a benefit they don’t need, while underprivileged white students would be able to get the leg up they deserve.
Soon, though, we will need to confront the larger educational issues that are perpetuating racial and class inequality in this country. The stakes are too high to wait.