9 Things You Didn\u2019t Know About Affirmative Action

As a minority myself (I’m half Peruvian and half White), the topic of affirmative action has always been personal for me. An experience that has long stayed with me took place when I was in college and I was nominated by my university’s journalism department for selection in a prestigious national magazine internship program. When my professors announced that I’d been chosen, I received comments from my peers suggesting that it was because of my background as a Latina.

That definitely stung, because while I certainly appreciated that my professors highlighted the diversity I’d bring to the program in my application(along with the fact that I speak fluent Spanish), I also knew that I was just as qualified education- and experience-wise as my white classmates who were also applying.

So when the Justice Department recently accused Yale University of discriminatory admissions processes, raising questions about affirmative action policies at universities and other institutions, it definitely piqued my interest.

The strongest association most people tend to have with affirmative action is thinking that it promotes diversity and helps talented people of diverse backgrounds advance in their schooling, career, and life in general, says Natasha Kumar Warikoo, PhD, a professor of sociology at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., and author of The Diversity Bargain: And Other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions, and Meritocracy at Elite Universities. But one thing that doesn’t get as much focus is that diversity is good for everybody. White students and coworkers have also been shown to benefit from affirmative action because it means they’re exposed to new perspectives and cultures, says Warikoo, who points out that this is just one of many misunderstandings surrounding the topic.

One thing I wish my former classmates could understand is that, in the more than 10 years since I graduated, I’ve often had to put in extra effort to be taken seriously by hiring managers, bosses, and coworkers. But more than anything, I want people to make an effort to be better educated about the history of affirmative action—and what it really is.

1. The term “affirmative action” was coined in 1961 by a Black lawyer named Hobart Taylor, Jr.

According to the American Association for Access, Equity and Diversity, Taylor was creating President John F. Kennedy’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity and working on a draft of an executive order, which stated that employers must use “affirmative action to ensure that applicants are treated equally without regard to race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”

The term “affirmative action” was intended to require that companies do something with regard to integrating their workforce, although nothing beyond not discriminating based on race was specified in the mandate.

Around this same time, selective colleges began trying to signal their support for the growing civil rights movement by adopting affirmative action policies to improve access for Black students to historically predominantly white universities, says Warikoo.

2. Affirmative action is meant to correct for the disparities between the prevalence of certain minorities in society in general and their representation in specific workplaces, colleges, etc.

While people of color remain underrepresented on college campuses, as well as in various professional industries, we’ve made strides, thanks to affirmative action policies. Case in point: The undergraduate student population was comprised of 45.2 percent students of color in 2016, compared to 29.6 percent in 1996, according to a 2019 report by the American Council on Education called Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education: A Status Report.

It’s a pretty different story on the faculty and leadership side, however, with positions remaining predominantly white. In 2016, only 21.1 percent of full-time faculty positions were held by people of color, and these individuals were less likely than white faculty members to hold full professorships, according to the same report.

It also found that, while the number of people of color serving as presidents more than doubled between 1986 and 2016, people of color still held only 16.8 percent of all college or university presidencies in 2016, with women of color holding only 5.1 percent of all presidencies.

3. The Supreme Court first considered the constitutionality of an affirmative action program in University of California Regents v. Bakke (1978).

This case’s name refers to Allan Bakke, a white applicant who had twice been denied admission into the University of California’s medical school, which had reserved 16 out of 100 spots for minority students. Because Bakke (who eventually was granted admission) argued that his test scores and GPA were higher than some of these minority students, the case raised the question of whether using affirmative action to accept more minority students was constitutional. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that, while it is legal to use race as one admissions factor of many, universities can’t simply work to meet racial “quotas” when it comes to admissions decisions.

4. In U.S. Reports: Grutter v. Bollinger et al. (2003), the Supreme Court ruled that affirmative action in school admission is constitutional if it treats race as one factor among many.

This case raised questions about how to ensure that affirmative action in school admissions policies is carried out in a constitutional way—and it ultimately ruled that it is acceptable if race is one factor that’s considered among various others. In other words, the fact that an applicant is a member of a minority group isn’t enough to ensure they are accepted; they also need to meet other qualifying criteria when it comes to grades and test scores.

5. Research shows that white women have benefited more than any other minority group since affirmative action policies have been put into place.

One of the biggest misconceptions is that affirmative action exclusively benefits Black communities, but people often forget that women are covered by the gender clause in these policies, says Minda Harts, a professor at New York University’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service and author of The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table.

In fact, a 1995 report by the California Senate Government Organization Committee showed that, after two decades of affirmative action policies being in place, white women held more managerial jobs than African-American, Latino, and Asian-American women. Even 17 years later, out of 37 women who are currently CEOs at a Fortune 500 company, none are African-American or Hispanic/Latino—in fact, there has only been one African-American woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company to date, says Harts.

6. At least 40 percent of Harvard’s underrepresented minority students offered admission would have been admitted without affirmative action, according to one report.

“The 2014 lawsuit Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. Harvard College really allowed us to look under the hood a little bit and examine the theory that every underrepresented minority on a given campus has benefited solely from affirmative action,” says Warikoo.

In fact, one economist analyzing Harvard’s data estimated that at least four in 10 of Harvard’s underrepresented minority students admitted would have been admitted based on other qualifying factors alone, such as academics, athletics, and legacy status.

7. In the same lawsuit mentioned above, the Supreme Court also ruled that there are no “race-neutral alternatives” to affirmative action that would result in a diverse student body that also upholds its standards of excellence.

This was one of the key aspects of this case, which served to show that diversity and inclusion are critical to Harvard’s mission and that there is ultimately no alternative solution to affirmative action policies to ensure that these priorities are upheld.

After a five-year battle, a judge ultimately ruled in October 2019 that Harvard’s admissions policies are in line with affirmative action laws, and that Harvard’s admissions policies don’t discriminate against Asian-American applicants.

8. On July 3, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded several Obama-era guidance documents that supported affirmative action.

After 2016 Supreme Court decisions that upheld the use of race-based admissions policies, the Obama administration put out guidance on how to adhere to the law while practicing affirmative action, which it encouraged, says Warikoo.

The Trump administration recently rescinded that guidance and later expressed support for a complaint against Yale that is trying to limit affirmative action. More on this below…

9. The Department of Justice is now accusing Yale University of discriminating against Asian-American and white applicants.

The DOJ started investigated Yale’s admission practices two years ago, when the Asian American Coalition for Education filed a complaint.

“The Department of Justice found Yale discriminates based on race and national origin in its undergraduate admissions process, and that race is the determinative factor in hundreds of admissions decisions each year,” said the DOJ in a statement. Because of this, it has ordered Yale not to use race as a consideration during the 2020-2021 undergraduate admissions cycle and says that university administration will have to request the right to use race as a consideration in future admissions cycles.

This is worrisome because, again, the courts have determined previously that there isn’t an alternative to affirmative action policies that would continue to foster growth with regard to diversity and inclusion in student populations. And by eliminating these policies, it’s possible that U.S. institutions would see a decrease in the diversity in workplaces and student populations, points out Warikoo.

For its part, Yale is fighting the DOJ decision.

“The department’s allegation is baseless,” Yale president Peter Salovey said in his own statement. “Given our university’s commitment to complying with federal law, I am dismayed that the DOJ inexplicably rushed to conclude its investigation without conducting a fully informed analysis, which would have shown that Yale’s practices absolutely comply with decades of Supreme Court precedent.”

The case is expected to go to the Supreme Court, and the ruling would impact affirmative action policies at other universities and institutions across the country.

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