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Three Professors Set the Record Straight on Affirmative Action for College Admissions

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By Profs Alan Aja, William Darity, Darrick Hamilton

In the coming weeks, the U.S. Supreme Court may land the final blow to what’s left of race-based affirmative action in higher education. If the type of questioning raised during case hearings in October are an indicator, the Court may rule that the University of Texas at Austin’s admissions policies violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, and that the plaintiff, 22-year old Abigail Fisher, was a victim of what affirmative action opponents long have framed as “reverse discrimination.” In practice, this means that public universities, but also private institutions that receive federal monies, may be required to eliminate any “race-based” admissions criteria. Even the smallest race-based factors considered permissible under the Grutter vs. Bollinger (2003) decision — which the court ruled were “narrowly-tailored” enough alongside other admissions criteria given a “compelling interest” for universities to represent the diverse demographic composition of the United States — may be
void.

Since its roots in the Philadelphia Plan, which demanded “goals and timetables” for minority hiring by government contractors, affirmative action policies have been met repeatedly with judicial scrutiny from district to federal levels. While often thought of as specific redistributive policy serving as reparations for slavery and Jim Crow, affirmative action actually is a varied set of positive anti-discrimination measures designed to desegregate elite institutions and preferred positions, including university admissions. A common myth perpetrated by opponents of affirmative action is the narrative that “unqualified minorities” take admissions slots from whites. This argument not only underscores white-entitlement to positions at elite institutions, but also assumes that whites generally are qualified for admission, and by default, blacks and Latinos generally are not. This ignores the historical advantage and protected access whites continue to hold via admissions preferences for legacies and children of donors, among other channels — hidden affirmative action for the privileged group. It also ignores the well-documented evidence from experimental psychology, developed by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson involving the phenomena of stereotype threat, boost and lift.

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