Affirmative Action: Factious Past, Uncertain Future The Supreme Court's expected ruling on a case involving the University of Texas could end race-based affirmative action. But while some say the program works and is still needed, others argue there are better ways of measuring diversity.
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Affirmative Action: Factious Past, Uncertain Future

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Affirmative Action: Factious Past, Uncertain Future

Affirmative Action: Factious Past, Uncertain Future

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Right now at colleges and universities around the country, admissions officers are pouring through tens of thousands of applications. And for the next few months, all of those admissions officers will begin to weigh each of those portfolios - looking at grades and scores and activities. And in some of those schools, race as well.

Now, back in 2003, the Supreme Court ruled that universities can consider race as a factor if the goal is to achieve diversity. But in that case, former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor famously wrote that within 25 years, race-based affirmative action would become obsolete. It could happen much, much sooner than that.

CHIEF JUSTICE JOHN ROBERTS: Well, I get to say that this is case number 11-345, Fisher against the University of Texas at Austin.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mr. Chief Justice...

RAZ: In October, the Supreme Court heard a case brought by a young woman named Abigail Fisher against the University of Texas at Austin. Fisher, who is white, was denied admission to the school in 2008, and she argues that it was because of her race. Now, if the court rules in her favor, it could prohibit all universities and colleges - both public and private - from considering race as a factor in admissions.

Today on the program, we're going to take a deeper look at race and affirmative action and why some opponents are now pushing for a system that considers an applicant's socioeconomic status. Our cover story: race, class and affirmative action.


RAZ: On June 4, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson went to Howard University here in Washington to give the commencement address. And in that speech, Johnson set down the intellectual argument in favor of the system that we now know as affirmative action.


PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: 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.

RAZ: The famed civil rights leader Julian Bond was just 26 at the time. That speech made a profound impact on him and many other civil rights leaders. And he argues that it began a process that was and still is necessary.

JULIAN BOND: I think it's generally speaking been a great success. Black people and people of color and women, if you include them, are now in jobs and schools and places in American life that they were not before. And they were not before because they were prohibited from being there either by the force of law or by custom.

And the forthcoming of affirmative action in its many forms and ways made it possible for these formerly excluded groups to be included. So it's been a great success.

RAZ: But over the past 20 years in several states, affirmative action has been scaled back or even banned as a factor in university admissions. The most notable example was in California. Bob Laird was the head of admissions at UC Berkeley at the time. Up to that point, he'd spent his entire career working to achieve diversity at the university. But in the late '90s, the ban on race as a factor in admissions meant his job became much, much harder.

BOB LAIRD: The effects were really devastating. Berkeley clearly began to lose the critical mass of African-American and Latino and Native American students that the campus had achieved over a number of years.

RAZ: There was 55 percent drop in Latino, African-American and Native American enrollment in just one year after that policy was implemented.

LAIRD: Correct. And the campus has never recovered. It's never come back to the enrollment levels as a percentage of the freshman class or the percentage of the undergraduate student body that the campus had achieved before then.

RAZ: What were you able to do to - I mean, you were the admissions officer, and one of your charges was to work on creating a diverse student body. So what were your options?

LAIRD: There was a kind of widespread assumption by people outside the university that Berkeley had only considered race and ethnicity in its selection criteria and it could now go looking for other criteria that might work as surrogates. So, for example, critics of race and ethnicity as a consideration variable in admissions claim that the campus could now just begin to consider low socioeconomic status and achieve the same results.

But the fact was that Berkeley had included low socioeconomic status among its diversity of variables for at least 30 years. There was also this sense that, well, now that race and ethnicity have been eliminated, we need to develop outreach programs to high schools. But again, the fact was that the University of California had pioneered middle school and high school outreach and academic development programs starting in the mid-1960s. So the notion that somehow we could find something that we hadn't thought of was naive and, in some cases, simply disingenuous.

RAZ: But critics of affirmative action that take race into consideration, they argue that this is a quota system, that this is simply unfair.

LAIRD: The question is, how do you measure when you have achieved success? Or how do you set goals if you can't use numbers without being accused of those numbers automatically being quotas? We've gotten ourselves into this kind of absurd position where we say as a society we really value the goal of racial and ethnic diversity. However, we are not going to consider race and ethnicity in order to achieve this racial and ethnic diversity.

And I think it's important also to point out that notion of unfairness is often summarized in the very persuasive sound bite reverse discrimination. But the notion that somehow dialing back slightly the needle on white privilege in higher education constitutes the same form of legal discrimination that took place for 300 years against African-Americans and, to a large extent, against Native Americans and, in a more recent way, against Latino students, is really a false equivalency and, I think, very careless thinking.

RAZ: Bob Laird, the former head of admissions for UC Berkeley from 1993 to 1999. His book is called "The Case for Affirmative Action in University Admissions." Bob, thanks.

LAIRD: You're welcome.

RAZ: The most vocal opponent of using race in admissions in California was Ward Connerly. He led the campaign in support of Proposition 209 in that state that banned the use of race and gender preferences in state hiring and in university admissions. He acknowledges that the number of African-American and Latino students at some of the state's most selective public universities has dropped. But he doesn't think it's a problem.

WARD CONNERLY: It is far too simplistic, with all due respect, to look at the number of black kids who go to UCLA and UC Berkeley and to say, wow, the approach of using factors other than race is not going to work. Black students go not only to UCLA and UC Berkeley, they go to historically black colleges and universities, which draw a very large number of students from that pool of high school graduates who are black. They go to Harvard and Yale with scholarships and other places which further depletes the pool of black students.

RAZ: Well, let's talk about university admissions for a moment. Let's say you're a 17 or 18-year-old kid and you're applying for admission to UC Berkeley. And you grew up, let's say, a single mom in a rough part of Sacramento. You are African-American. No money for SAT prep, no money for extracurricular activities, no money to take the advanced placement courses, but you're a kid with potential. And you don't score quite as high as a white kid from an economically advantageous background, but that kid still has potential.

Why wouldn't it be worth looking at that African-American kid and say, OK, their scores may not be as high, but clearly this kid is worth giving a shot too?

CONNERLY: Guy, you've just defined my background. Growing up in El Paso Heights, which is a very low-income area of Sacramento, coming from a household in which my grandmother raised me and my mother was - had died and my father had abandoned the household. I had very little money. And so I went to a community college. And from there, I went to Sacramento State College. I never got to go to the University of California, yet I had the great fortune of serving on the governing board of the entire system.

RAZ: You have said that you worry about the effect of affirmative action on minority students. What do you mean by that?

CONNERLY: I think that we marginalize people when we have this system of treating them differently. And that marginalization carries with it the presumption that people who otherwise are really doing all right on their own, they're competing, but just the mere fact that they are, quote, "a minority" carries with it the belief that they wouldn't be there were it not for the largesse of somebody giving them an edge. And the very system of fairness that I think runs deep in American life ends up harming those who are the perceived beneficiaries of affirmative action.

RAZ: Ward Connerly. He's currently the head of the American Civil Rights Institute in Sacramento. Now, when it comes to public opinion and affirmative action, Americans are split. And some argue that class, not race, should be the main factor in affirmative action.

Rick Kahlenberg is one of the leading proponents of this idea. He's a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. And he argues that if you look at the most selective colleges and universities in America, you'll find that there are 25 times as many rich kids as there are poor ones. But can you achieve ethnic diversity if you just use class as an admissions factor?

RICK KAHLENBERG: Yeah. I think the evidence suggests that you can if you define socioeconomic status in a sophisticated way. So in addition to looking at concentrated poverty, it's important to look at wealth. So your net worth is something that is accumulated really over many generations. People hand down wealth over a number of years. And the wealth gap in this country by race is much, much larger than the income gap for that very reason.

We looked at 10 leading universities in this country where race has been dropped from admissions, usually because there was a voter initiative to ban the use of race at public institutions. And in seven of the 10 cases, universities were able to get as much or more racial and ethnic diversity - that is African-American and Latino representation - as they had using race and ethnicity in the past.

RAZ: Rick Kahlenberg. He's a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. By the way, in the case of Fisher versus the University of Texas, the Supreme Court could offer up a narrow opinion that only applies to the state of Texas. And legal experts widely believe a narrow majority of the justices will side with Abigail Fisher. Stay with us. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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