“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.”
President Lyndon B. Johnson spoke these words in 1965, the same year he passed an executive order prohibiting government contractors from discriminating on the basis on race. He was not the first person to use the phrase “affirmative action”—that honor goes to his predecessor, John F. Kennedy, in 1961—but it was during his tenure that such programs first assumed national prominence. Ever since, those two words—“affirmative action”—have become some of the most divisive in the American lexicon.
But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start by defining affirmative action: just what is it?
In a nutshell, it’s an umbrella term for policies designed to reduce racial disparities in America—giving preference (all else being equal) to minorities when it comes to college admissions and job applications, for example, with the aim of increasing diversity. Since their inception, such laws have been controversial, and it’s not as if the intervening decades have softened people’s view of them. In fact, according to a 2013 Gallup Poll reported by The New York Times, 67 percent of U.S. adults oppose race being used as a factor in college admissions.
With the Supreme Court currently deciding Fisher v. University of Texas, a case that could end up doing away with such a thing for good, I feel compelled to jump to these policies’ defense. I think that, in the end, the good done by affirmative action outweighs the relatively paltry arguments against it.
Now, opposition to affirmative action can effectively be boiled down to two schools of thought.
The first, and most extreme, goes as follows: that affirmative action is not just unnecessary now, but was never necessary, not even when such policies were first introduced. Proponents of this theory argue that affirmative action is inherently discriminatory, and that it serves only to emphasize racial differences rather than look past them. A nice thing to think, but ultimately naïve—race still exists as a major point of contention in America, and for someone to act as if it doesn’t reveals more about their own, narrow-minded worldview than anything else. One example: several U.S. states—notably Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina—actually afford the Confederate flag the same protections as the American one. In such a climate, for someone to claim that minorities are somehow contributing to racial divides by simply pointing out racism where it occurs isn’t just clueless—it’s downright offensive. Leaving “race out of the picture entirely,” as Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has said in a published dissent, “is a sentiment out of touch with reality.”
The second argument is the one more commonly put forth today: that, while such policies might have been necessary at first, racial progress and legislation aimed at reducing inequality have rendered them pointless in this day and age. Chief Justice John Roberts is a notable proponent of this claim, and while it undeniably possesses a certain appeal—no-one likes to think that America, after 50 years of civil rights movements, remains a fundamentally unequal nation split along racial lines—the numbers simply do not bear it out.
Case in point—white families in 2010 were six times as wealthy as black and Hispanic families. In 2011, there were three times as many blacks as whites living below the poverty line. And, as of 2012, the percentage of black 30 year olds with a college degree was only 21 percent, compared with 38 percent of white 30 year olds, according to The New York Times.
Just because many white people don’t recognize the inherent advantages granted to them in life by virtue of their skin color doesn’t mean these advantages don’t exist. Non-Caucasians born in the U.S. have the odds stacked against them from the start, and it’s a vicious cycle that faces them: opportunities for social advancement are slim, and so many are forced to pass on to their children the same situation and circumstances they themselves failed to surmount.
And, yes—for many upperclassmen just now entering into the college admissions process, the feeling that being white puts one at an automatic disadvantage is hard to shake. However, put things in their broader context, and recognize that, while calls for campus diversity can seem unfair to some, such policies aren’t meant to be taken on a person-by-person basis. They’re meant to effect broader demographic change, and the fact that decades of affirmative action have still left the country with a long way to go doesn’t mean that America should just cast down its bucket where it is and call it a day.