Affirmative action is needed because it facilitates the integration and tolerance of women and minorities in the United States by fostering diversity in educational and professional institutions, ultimately adding to the innovation, growth, and progress of our economy. Not only does it ensure an equal opportunity for social and economic advancement, but benefits everyone through exposure to diverse viewpoints and backgrounds. Affirmative action does not create racial or gender preferences; rather, it merely removes obstacles to fair access faced by women and people of color.
Affirmative action makes sure that educational institutions, workplaces, and other institutions reflect our diverse community. Generally, women and minorities face obstacles in gaining admission to higher educational institutions and workplaces. These obstacles include a gap in standardized test scores, a dearth in the availability of Advanced Placement classes in predominantly minority schools, and lingering class differences and income gaps. Therefore, to ensure a diverse student body, and subsequently a diverse workplace, admissions and employment policies that balance out these obstacles are still sorely necessary.
In the higher education setting, a diverse classroom strengthens the learning experience of all students – a plurality of opinions, life experiences, and ideas add to the classroom and campus dynamic. Furthermore, it prepares a diverse and well trained workforce. This was attested to by the plethora of amicus briefs filed by Fortune 500 companies in support of the University of Michigan in 2003 to the United States Supreme Court in Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger. Not only is affirmative action the right thing to do, but it is also the prudent thing to do for the business needs of our increasingly diverse society and global economy.
Further, affirmative action serves as a way to remedy continuing harms imposed on women and minorities by de jure (legal) segregation and institutional racism. Income gaps between white communities and communities of color are still significant, as is the income gap between men and women. Affirmative action is in no small part responsible for the middle class growth in communities of color over the past thirty years, spurned on by access to higher education and the social mobility that comes with it.
Khin Mai Aung is a Staff Attorney at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. This opinion piece is part of a live public policy debate series called Intelligence Squared U.S., which is an initiative of The Rosenkranz Foundation. For more information and to listen to past debates, go to www.iq2US.org.
The legality of affirmative action in higher education was confirmed by the Supreme Court in the 2003 University of Michigan cases mentioned above. Race may be used in public higher education admissions as one among many factors contributing to an institution's overall diversity, as long as all candidates get nuanced, individualized consideration and race alone does not determine an individual's admission or denial. Many prestigious institutions of higher education have created affirmative action plans under this broad mandate, accruing to the benefit of all students.
The graduation rates of minority students at many elite institutions, and the long-term career arcs of these graduates relative to their white peers is a useful measure of the long term effectiveness of affirmative action. For example, the graduation rates of black students from Ivy League undergraduate programs is within a few percentage points of the white graduation rate. In addition, the long-term career arcs of these graduates tend to be on par with those of their white peers – thereby adding more blacks in professional positions and other upwardly mobile tracks.
Critics of affirmative action suffer from a short sighted refusal to see the myriad benefits of diversity, or the unique value that diverse viewpoints, experiences and backgrounds can add to the intellectual life of an educational institution or productivity of a workplace. Many such critics would have us believe that the playing field is naturally level, and that we live in a meritocracy. This couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, recent studies have shown that white college students with test scores and high school grade point averages less than the minimum admission standards are twice as prevalent as black or Latino peers who received consideration in an affirmative action program. These white students are the beneficiaries of a very different type of affirmative action, one based on wealth, legacy, and privilege. However, this fact rarely raises the ire of many opponents of race and gender based affirmative action.
Affirmative action is not the only answer to ensure diversity in our educational institutions or workplaces, nor is it the only antidote for the past (and sometimes continuing) harm of institutional racism. However, it is an essential component in addressing these issues. It allows the most able institutions in our society—those leading the academy and economy —to facilitate the promise of the American dream to communities which have been long neglected. It adds to the potential of our society and economy by ensuring equality of access and representation across all sectors of our diverse society.