Editorial: The day is not yet here to end affirmative action
When World War II draftees arrived for basic training, it marked the first time that many of them met a person from another part of the country or a member of another race. Their world was widened by war. Young people who go off to college have a similar experience, and the education they receive is the richer for it. So is a nation that continues to become increasingly diverse in every respect. It would be a mistake if the U.S. Supreme Court, in the name of becoming a color-blind nation, eliminated the ability of colleges and universities to consider race as one of many factors used to determine college admissions. Someday, we hope. But not yet.
The court is expected to rule soon on a case brought on behalf of Abigail Fisher, a Texas high school student denied admission to the University of Texas, which, her suit contends, discriminated against her because she is white. The Texas university system automatically admits the top 10 percent of every high school’s graduating class, a strategy that fills about three-fourths of its available openings. Because of the defacto segregation of public education in so much of America, many of those admitted are members of a minority.
Texas admissions offices then use a range of factors to determine how to fill the remaining quarter of the class. One of those is race. Fisher, who was not in the top 10 percent of her class, claims that she was a victim of reverse discrimination, but universities consider all sorts of things when trying to achieve the best possible mix of students. Among them are geography, ethnicity, athletic, musical or artistic ability, history of civic engagement and socio-economic background. Proving that she would have been admitted were it not for her race will be difficult.
Ideally, society and its educational institutions will move beyond the need to consider race, but that day isn’t here yet. Racism exists and it disadvantages non-white students and their families in ways great and small before, and after, college. But it is time to reduce the role of race as a factor and put greater weight on an applicant’s socio-economic status. Class, or race, isn’t destiny, as countless examples prove. The biggest factor in educational success is the value a child’s parents place on the importance of learning, but that can’t be legislated or adjudicated. But class matters. Children from low-income households, whether black, white or Hispanic, rarely enjoy the same advantages that children from middle-class and upper-income families do, everything from music lessons and tutoring to travel opportunities, access to books and the chance to interact with well-educated peers. Admissions criteria that grant preferences based on socioeconomic class recognize that, and they enjoy popular support because they are perceived as fair. They also increase the percentage of minority students who come from poor households, since race-based systems encourage colleges to select minority students from higher-income households because they are likely to be better prepared and need less financial aid.
The court, in its upcoming decision, and in another case that tests the limits of the 2003 decision that sanctioned the use of race as one of a host of factors appropriate to consider, will be pulled in two directions. One was expressed by Chief Justice John Roberts in 2007 when he wrote that “the way to stop discriminating on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” The other was expressed by Justice Harry Blackmun in 1978 when he wrote, “In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race.” The move toward a color-blind society continues, but the right position in 2013 is somewhere between Roberts and Blackmun.