For a program as associated with the civil rights era of nearly 50 years ago, affirmative action has been shoved uncomfortably back into the public spotlight. In a major case debating the merits of the system, Abigail Fisher, has brought a case to the Supreme Court arguing that she was rejected from the University of Texas at Austin based on her race (she is Caucasian), which, she argues, is unconstitutional.
As we have argued in the past, the principle of affirmative action should stand and continue to be a legal practice in U.S. higher education. Harvard filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court in favor of affirmative action, which we unequivocally affirm. But instead of arguing in favor of the legal justifications behind affirmative action, which are better left to the lawyers in front of the Supreme Court, we make the case for the social and economic logic behind the practice.
Affirmative action, which effectively began in 1961 President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10925, which was and is designed to allow university admissions to alleviate the education disadvantage of low-income applicants from minority backgrounds. While great strides have been made nationwide to make college campuses more representative of the demographic diversity of the U.S., massive progress remains to be done: Teach For America recently reported that only eight percent of students below the poverty line will graduate from college. For all the rhetoric behind the inclusiveness of classes at elite schools like Harvard, access to a good education is still largely socio-economically determined. Harvard remains a largely upper middle class institution, and people of color remain disproportionately affected by this problem.
Affirmative action remains relevant not only because racial minorities bear the brunt of economic inequality in the U.S., but also because institutionalized racism continues to systematically disadvantage people of color from all economic backgrounds. Students at the University of Texas at Austin—the very university that Fisher is suing for its use of affirmative action in admissions—have recently come under fire for launching bleach-filled balloons at individuals of color. Many believe the attacks to be racially motivated, and this controversy is a particularly salient testament to the persistence of racism in the U.S.
This type of incident is certainly an extreme example of the disadvantages facing low-income and minority young people. Yet 51 years later, affirmative action continues to serve a valuable purpose in seeking to create a more equally educated society, one in which we continue to hope that equal career opportunities might be available to everyone who has grown up in the U.S. While we have come a long way since the civil rights era, there is no question that race still matters.