Can Affirmative Action Be Fixed?

Experts weigh in on why, despite the Supreme Court ruling, the equity policy faces major problems.

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Dorothy Garrison-Wade and Chance Lewis, who analyzed four decades of affirmative action cases and policies, have written (pdf):

From the literature, it appears the main objective of affirmative-action policies in higher education is to improve educational opportunities for minorities by equalizing admission requirements by including race as one factor in the admission process. Another objective is to correct past discrimination by promoting educational diversity. This objective is confirmed in many U.S. Supreme Court rulings that upheld court cases in favor of institutions when justification for race-conscious policies demonstrated a compelling interest. Compelling interest is divided into "remedial" interests, which include remedy of past discrimination and "non-remedial interests," which promote educational diversity, reduce racial isolation or promote educational research.

In their research, Garrison-Wade and Lewis reference President Lyndon Johnson's own words, which confirm that the goal of affirmative action was at least in part to "remedy" past inequalities experienced by black Americans. In a 1965 speech at Howard University, President Johnson laid out the case for affirmative action, saying this:

But freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying, "Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please." 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 ...

For the task is to give 20 million Negroes the same chance as every other American to learn and grow, to work and share in society, to develop their abilities -- physical, mental and spiritual -- and to pursue their individual happiness.

Johnson elaborated in the speech, noting that everything from the neighborhood you are raised in to the schools you attend as a child can imbue you with distinct advantages and disadvantages that can last a generation or more.

The fact that affirmative action from the outset was "remedial," intended to remedy disadvantages that black Americans and their children might face (such as lacking college-educated grandparents, while a white college applicant might be a third-generation legacy), casts a long shadow over present-day affirmative action programs. Specifically it complicates discussions over who should actually benefit today. Adding to the complication is that proponents and legal experts have cited diversity as a key goal of affirmative action today. Yet so far, no one can seem to reach a consensus on what and who constitutes ideal "diversity."

Who Should Affirmative Action Help?

"Affirmative action was never directed at a particular race," said Elaine R. Jones, former director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, one of the country's leading civil rights legal-advocacy arms. The first director-counsel was Thurgood Marshall, who litigated the landmark school-desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and who would become the first black justice to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. "What disturbs me is people try to make it a black-white thing. People try to make it a black-white paradigm," Jones said in an interview with The Root.

Dreyfuss, however, said, "It was implied that it was black Americans," explaining that "minority" was synonymous with "African American" at the time affirmative action programs were implemented. "The civil rights movement was a black-versus-white movement," he added.

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