Affirmative Action Is About More Than Diversity

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Affirmative Action Is About More Than Diversity

by Chris Lewis
Reporter at Campus Progress

The United States Supreme Court. SOURCE: Flickr/NCinDC
The United States Supreme Court.

On Monday, the Supreme Court delivered its much-anticipated decision on the constitutionality of race-based affirmative action, ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas that affirmative action programs can continue in principle, but establishing new standards for evaluating the policy’s legality.

Writing for the majority in a 7-1 decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that future court decisions should “verify that it is necessary for a university to use race to achieve the educational benefits of diversity.”

The Court’s decision and most public discussion of it have used diversity as justification for affirmative action. While diversity is important (and is perhaps the best legal rationale for the policy), it’s not what affirmative action is really about.

“The original goal of affirmative action is to ensure that people who have been historically discriminated against—oppressed—have access to education and jobs. We’ve lost track of that,” said Mychal Denzel Smith, a Knobler Fellow at the Nation Institute who has written about the Court’s decision and the emphasis on diversity.

A quick look at the data makes the weight of this history clear. As we wrote last week, African-Americans still face unemployment and poverty rates that far exceed the rates for white Americans.

And it’s not just history, either; we still haven’t achieved equal opportunity based on class or race. Just a few examples: Standardized tests are culturally biased. Smith noted that programs like New York City’s “stop and frisk” disproportionately target youth of color and damage their future career prospects. And being born into a rough environment can make learning nearly impossible—The Atlantic editor Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote that “on an average day in middle school [in inner-city Baltimore], fully a third of my brain was obsessed with personal safety.”

Each example speaks to the value of affirmative action, but none are captured by the diversity paradigm. Why, then, does diversity dominate the conversation?

“We don’t have a sense of how history affects us today, and so diversity as a goal is just more palatable,” Smith told Campus Progress. “It doesn’t sound like it’s giving anyone an advantage.”

But framing affirmative action as a means to achieve diversity also has the effect—intentional or not—of stifling conversations about inequality and privilege.

“It takes away from a real discussion about what racism is,” Smith said. “We have to get back to an understanding that racism as a system of oppression does not mean white people walking around being mean to people of color. It means denying opportunity.”

Chris Lewis covers the Progressive Economic Growth beat as a reporter for Campus Progress. He graduated from American University in 2011, where he was a co-founder of American Way of Life magazine, a member of the Campus Progress Journalism Network. He is most interested in the nexus between economic policy, social life, and culture. In addition to Campus Progress, he has written for the Washington City Paper, Miami Herald, CounterPunchand Z Magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @chris_lewis_

Cross-posted with permission from Campus Progress