The New York Times reported Tuesday that it had obtained an internal announcement from the Trump administration stating that it would launch an investigation into universities that it believed were using affirmative action to discriminate against white people.
Though the White House and Department of Justice have yet to confirm this investigation, it brought up a debate as old as the policy itself about whether affirmative action is fair.
A year after the Supreme Court upheld the consideration of race in college admissions in Fisher v. University of Texas, there are people who still think affirmative action puts white people at a disadvantage. In the policy’s more than 50-year history, myths of universities and companies promoting “reverse racism” have stuck. There are assumptions about affirmative action that don’t take into account how and why people from marginalized communities gain access to opportunities. This is because some people don’t understand how the policy works and why it’s still relevant.
Here’s what affirmative action actually does and doesn’t do:
Affirmative action is not just for black and Hispanic people.
One of the biggest misconceptions about affirmative action is that it’s only based on race. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Though the executive order President John F. Kennedy initially signed in 1961 made it unlawful to discriminate based on “race, creed, color, or national origin” for government contractors, in 1967 President Lyndon B. Johnson extended the policy to all employees nationwide and included sex and religion as well.
For more than five decades, affirmative action has sought to eliminate unlawful discrimination for all marginalized people.
Students of color aren’t unfairly benefiting from affirmative action.
Affirmative action has always been meant to level the playing field in a way that civil rights laws alone could not. In 1965, Johnson underscored that point while speaking about the executive order at a commencement ceremony for Howard University, a historically black college.
“It is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates,” he said. “This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.”
Opponents fail to realize that minorities, especially people of color, still face institutional disadvantages when it comes to being admitted to certain schools. And though race isn’t the only identifying factor in admission processes, people of color are often accused of being unqualified for high-performing school and taking white students’ places (even though Ivy League schools admit more legacy students than black students).
And though the candidates can gain access to education opportunities, affirmative action isn’t about a “quota,” preferential treatment or a free ride. Race, ethnicity, religion and sex are used in a holistic approach to consider what candidates would be a good fit for the school.
Writer Ashley C. Ford debunked these myths in a Twitter thread about her own experiences:
Do you know how many white people truly and genuinely believe that black people get to go to college for free?
— Ashley C. Ford (@iSmashFizzle) August 2, 2017
White women benefit from affirmative action the most.
Programs stemming from affirmative action have been critical in ensuring gender equity and creating opportunities for women in business and in educational institutions that they’ve traditionally been shut out of. As beneficial as affirmative action has been for white women, a majority of them (67 percent) oppose it, according to the 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Study.
In the first two decades of affirmative action, white women saw more growth in their careers than any racial group. Columbia University law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw explained in her 2006 essay “Framing Affirmative Action” why depicting a black person as the poster child for affirmative action is flawed. “The primary beneficiaries of affirmative action have been Euro-American women,” she wrote.
Today, women outnumber men on college campuses and are more likely to earn their bachelor’s degrees and attend graduate school than men. More than 30 years after affirmative action was extended to include women, the percentage of female physicians jumped from 7.6 to 25.2. However, these improvement are more likely to benefit white women than women of color.
It promotes more diverse spaces, which is good for everyone.
Diversity matters. And college campuses and companies still have a long way to go before they more accurately reflect America’s demographics. Affirmative action, however, has played a big part in helping close some of the race gaps in higher education.
Marginalized students have a harder time getting accepted into public research universities in states where affirmative action is banned, according to one 2013 study from the University of Washington. Researchers saw a 23 percentage-point drop in the chance of minority students being admitted compared to white students in states where the policy was not allowed, but just a 1 percentage-point drop in states where it was enforced.
A diverse population on campus helps all students gain a greater awareness of social issues, promotes a higher level of academic engagement and leads to an overall better college experience, as noted by the University of Arizona.
Emily Choi, an Asian American student at Harvard, told the Times that the policy has made a positive impact on her experience at the Ivy League institution.
“I firmly believe in affirmative action,” she said. “The diversity at Harvard has been key to my learning, and I think that if there weren’t so many people of different backgrounds, I wouldn’t be forced to think about things in new ways.”
Affirmative action has helped so many women and people of color break barriers in their careers. But even with the policy, the playing field still isn’t totally level for everyone. Getting rid of it wouldn’t just be anti-progressive, but detrimental for this country’s future.