“You do not take a person who for years has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him to the starting line of the race and then say, ‘You’re free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. Thus, it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates … we seek not just equality as a right and a theory but also equality as a fact and equality as a result.”
– President Lyndon Johnson delivering the commencement speech at Howard University in 1965.
After six years of legal wrangling and heated debate, the University’s affirmative action lawsuits have reached their judicial terminus. Today, teams of attorneys for the University and the Center for Individual Rights will have 30 minutes apiece to make their oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court. It is clear that it is the duty of the court, in order to continue to repair the nation’s historic racial inequality, to uphold the University’s admissions policy.
Our nation’s history of racial inequality – both state sanctioned and de facto – has stained nearly all aspects of American political, economic and social life. In studying our history, it is apparent that the mere acts of ending slavery and legal segregation did not end the problems created by inequality. In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education ended legal school segregation. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 reached further, guaranteeing that no American could legally be discriminated against because of her race or ethnicity. But the promise of integration held out by these actions has not yet been achieved. Public schools remain highly segregated, as do residential patterns. Minorities are consistently paid less than their white counterparts and receive worse educational training. Much of this is a result of white resistance and habit engendered over years of overt discrimination. It is also the product of government’s failure to enforce its own mandates.
True remedies require constant reevaluation and reform and policies that challenge racism and encourage people of different backgrounds to live among one another. Today, affirmative action is necessary because it continues moving society toward that end.
President Bush and his allies have twisted legal language to label the University’s policies as quotas in order to argue that the University’s brand of affirmative action is unconstitutional. However, the American Bar Association and the deans of many of the country’s best law schools have publicly stated the contrary. A group of military officers have called for the need for affirmative action, citing that even though minorities are far from underrepresented in the armed forces, the high-ranking leadership is for the most part white. Dozens of Fortune 500 companies filed amicus briefs in the University’s favor, realizing that diversity in education is paramount for a dynamic society and work force. Labor unions and many civil rights organizations agree. An unlikely coalition has been formed; the leaders in the worlds of law, academia, the military, corporate America and labor present a clear and convincing argument against the president’s dogmatic objection to the University’s admissions policies.
Affirmative action’s critics offer no viable alternative. Bush touts Texas’ 10-percent plan, sometimes known as “affirmative access,” under which the top 10 percent of the state’s graduating class is guaranteed admission to a state college. This plan, however, has proven inadequate. One drastic result has been underrepresented minorities confined to under-funded institutions, while the prestigious universities are often reserved for those that benefited from a segregated school system. Moreover, the plan depends on public schools remaining highly segregated.
The phenomenon of racial segregation in education is not restricted to one or a few regions. Disproportionate funding of public schools is an endemic reality that is starkly obvious in Metro Detroit, and riddles urban centers across the country. The result is an underrepresented minority population in higher education, cutting off black and Latino communities from career opportunities.
Affirmative action benefits entire communities because minorities are more likely than other college graduates to return to and become involved in their communities. The court addressed this as a compelling state interest in Bakke v. Regents of the University of California.
Affirmative action exists solely because there is a need for the program. Shocking disparities still exist between whites and blacks, the wealthy and the poor. Affirmative action serves as a mechanism that can help chip away at those inequities, even as we continue to address America’s racial problem at its foundation.
Today, as the court hears the University’s oral arguments that center on the educational benefits of diversity, we should also bear in mind the words of Lyndon Johnson. A level playing field is indeed an end worth fighting for. But the years of racism and inequality – both of the institutional and personal nature – ensure that many minorities enter that playing field ill-equipped to compete with their more privileged counterparts. The University’s affirmative action policies directly attack this unevenness by allowing underrepresented minorities access to the same benefits and opportunities as the rest of society. Affirmative action is not an end unto itself, but it helps to ensure that the day will come when it is not necessary.