How Will Obama Handle Affirmative Action?

Demonstrators in front of Supreme Court (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Demonstrators in front of Supreme Court (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

(The Root) — Between now and the inauguration on Jan. 21, The Root will be taking a daily look at the president's record on a number of policy issues, including his first-term accomplishments and what many Americans hope to see him accomplish in a second term. Today: affirmative action. See previous postings in this series here.


Background: Since the end of government-sanctioned segregation, affirmative action has emerged as the last of the great legal battles in the war for racial equality in America. The origins of affirmative action as we know it today began in the 1960s. President John F. Kennedy first used the term "affirmative action" upon issuing Executive Order 10925, which created the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity, the precursor to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The order required that projects using federal funds take "affirmative action" to ensure that projects are free of racial bias in areas such as hiring.

During his tenure as assistant labor secretary in the Nixon administration, Arthur Fletcher, a prominent black conservative, outlined the first plan to use sanctions as incentives for employers to diversify their workforces. Fletcher, whose plan was first used among construction workers in Philadelphia, would become known as "the godfather of affirmative action."

In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled in the country's first major court decision on affirmative action. The court determined that Alan Bakke, a white applicant who had been denied admission to the University of California at Davis Medical School and who claimed racial quotas favoring minorities had caused him to be passed over for less qualified candidates, deserved admission. Affirmative action was declared constitutional, but the court's ruling said that while race can be considered in admissions, it cannot be a determining factor via quotas of any kind. 

In 2003 the Supreme Court heard two affirmative cases involving the University of Michigan. While the court struck down the university's use of affirmative action at the undergraduate level in Gratz v. Bollinger, deeming it as quota-based for employing a point system to applicants that included race as a consideration, the court upheld the university's limited use of a race as an admission consideration in its law school in Grutter v. Bolinger. (After the ruling Michigan voters would pass a ballot referendum to prohibit race and gender from being considerations in state college admissions, public hiring and the distribution of public contracts. Just after the 2012 election a federal appeals court overturned the ban.)

First-term accomplishments: President Obama has indicated that he believes affirmative action should begin to address class-based inequality even more more than it does racial imbalances. During the 2008 election he stated that he does not believe his daughters should benefit from race-based admissions, considering their privileged backgrounds. His administration did, however, file an amicus brief in support of the University of Texas' use of affirmative action in law school admissions for the Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin lawsuit, an affirmative action case that will be heard by the Supreme Court in the coming year.

Second-term hopes: In a 2009 interview with the Associated Press, the president said, "I do think that there are still circumstances in which on a college admissions or on a hiring decision, taking into account issues of past discrimination, of diversity of a workforce or a student body, can still be appropriate." But in recent weeks he has come under fire for a lack of diversity in his own hiring.


There has been endless criticism of the number of white males recently appointed to his second-term Cabinet, and the New York Times recently noted the predominantly white, male composition of President Obama's senior staff. The president's own workplace reinforces the fundamental challenge that affirmative action faces today. While most Americans agree diversity is a worthy goal, most also agree that successfully achieving that goal is not always easy. But it is much tougher to accomplish without targeted remedies aimed at achieving it.

Many are hopeful that with the Fisher case set to refocus the nation's attention on the subject of affirmative action, the president will take more of a leadership role in demonstrating the importance of diversity in his own workplace and in articulating its importance to the American people — particularly now that he is no longer facing a re-election campaign in which discussions of race must be carefully avoided as lethal political landmines. 


Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter