n July 20th, The University of Texas at Austin (UT-Austin) faced its third lawsuit alleging that the institution denied white applicants admission because of their race. The two white applicants behind the case sued the university and are aided by Students for Fair Admissions, a nonprofit that opposes racial discimination within higher education.
UT-Austin is not the only institution to face legal troubles for its admissions policies. Last October, Harvard University was also sued by Students for Fair Admissions for using race as a factor for admitting students.
The system that the aforementioned universities used is known as affirmative action. It gives preferential treatment to “underrepresented groups” which include minorities, women, the disabled, and veterans. Affirmative action is prevalent in the areas of employment and education.
To understand why affirmative action is a misguided policy, the history of racism in the United States and the subsequent attempts at rectification must first be examined.
In 1619, 20 African slaves were brought to the Jamestown colony. This was the start of African slavery in America.
Many European colonists found the enslaved Africans to be cheaper than European indentured servants so slavery gradually became more prevalent, especially in the southern colonies and eventually states.
By the late 18th century, the South underwent a major transition. In 1793, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin which made the cotton industry feasible. The invention, coupled with England’s huge demand for cotton, invigorated the southern economy and thus led to a huge demand for slavery. However, by 1804, all northern states had abolished the “peculiar institution”.
By 1820, there were 11 slave states and 11 free states. With sectional tensions running high, the North and South agreed to legislation known as the Missouri Compromise. It established a line that ran horizontally through the middle of the country. All states north of the line would be free states and all states south of the line could be slave states. The legislation temporarily cooled the flames of sectionalism.
By the 1850s, America inherited new territory in the Southwest and repealed the Missouri Compromise. This combination led to bloodshed and the formation of the Republican Party, which opposed the expansion of slavery.
In 1860, Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected president and the majority of slave states seceded from the Union.
The Jim Crow Era
The North won the Civil War and the nation entered into an era of reconstruction. The Republican-dominated government passed constitutional amendments abolishing slavery and granting suffrage to African Americans.
After the era of reconstruction ended, the South’s former leaders were elected back into office, and they returned to their oppression of black people. They passed voter suppression laws including the literacy test, grandfather clause, and poll tax that precluded African Americans from reaching the ballot box.
They also passed Jim Crow laws that segregated southern society and kept African Americans in inferior facilities. This was sanctioned by the government by the Supreme Court ruling Plessy v. Ferguson.
Despite slavery having been abolished, many African Americans were forced back into a system almost the same as slavery. Many white landowners tricked and intimidated former slaves into a system that would keep the black workers in perpetual debt. This agricultural system was known as sharecropping, and despite its similarity to slavery, remained legal until the Civil Rights Era.
Some southern racist white people resorted to intimidation, fear tactics, and terrorism to keep black people from voting and acheiving success. They often formed secret organizations, the most notorious of which was the Ku Klux Klan. If black southerners did not acquiesce to their demands, then they were usually met with violence or even death.
The Civil Rights Era
It was not until the 1950s and 1960s that conditions began to improve for African Americans. In 1954, the Supreme Court led the charge and ruled that segregation of public schools was unconstitutional.
The following year, Rosa Parks sat in the “whites only” section of a Montgomery, Alabama bus and refused to give it up. She was arrested, but her civil disobedience galvanized a boycott of the Montgomery buses. Among the protesters was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who quickly made a meteoric rise in the Civil Rights Movement.
Martin Luther King Jr. led a series of racial justice protests opposing the Jim Crow laws of the South. His strong leadership and nonviolent principles galvanized a civil rights movement whose cries of justice reverberated around the nation.
Not all supported MLK’s goals. In the acclaimed Selma march, the peaceful protestors were met with violent opposition by state troopers which were under the command of staunch segregationist, Gov. George Wallace. The troopers attempted to prevent the civil rights protesters from reaching Montgomery but they eventually arrived under the auspices of the U.S. Army and the Alabama National Guard (which was under federal control). On the steps of the Montgomery state capitol, King proclaimed “No tide of racism can stop us”.
On the steps of the Montgomery state capitol, King proclaimed “No tide of racism can stop us”.
The cries of justice even reached the federal government. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibits race-based discrimination. The following year, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which bars voting rights discrimination.
The History of Affirmative Action
The passage of the civil rights legislation marked the beginning of affirmative action. Institutions began setting aside jobs, contracts, and opportunities for minorities. These racial quotas were challenged in the 1978 Supreme Court case: Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. The justices outlawed racial quotas but allowed race to be one factor in admissions.
In 1989, several decisions were issued that restricted affirmative action. These decisions banned the use of quotas in instances where prior racial discrimination could not be proven and also limited the use of racial preferences by states that were stricter than the federal government.
According to britannica.com, “in Adarand Constructors v. Pena (1995), the court ruled that federal affirmative action programs were unconstitutional unless they fulfilled a ‘compelling governmental interest’.” In 2003, in the Bollinger decisions, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the constitutionality of affirmative action, though it also ruled that race cannot be the preeminent factor in admissions.
According to britannica.com, “in Adarand Constructors v. Pena (1995), the court ruled that federal affirmative action programs were unconstitutional unless they fulfilled a ‘compelling governmental interest’.”
In 2014, in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, the Supreme Court upheld a Michigan amendment that banned affirmative action. In 2016, in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the Supreme Court allowed the limited use of affirmative action by schools.
The Argument Against Affirmative Action
As illustrated, minorities, especially African Americans, have historically experienced injustice sanctioned by the government until the 1960s. The historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 ended the Jim Crow Era, but they also led the United States to begin enacting affirmative action policies.
These policies are the antithesis of the goals of the Civil Rights Movement. The objective of the Civil Rights Movement was to create an equal society where racism was eliminated. The U.S. government essentially replaced the discrimination of minorities with the discrimination of white people. They reversed the discrimination, hence the name “reverse discrimination”.
Affirmative action ignores class inequality and falsely assumes that race inequality is the same as class inequality. It presumes that every individual is defined by his/her race.
For example, a white individual coming from a toxic home with little financial help from his/her family has to work extremely hard to gain admission to a college. An African American with the identical background may gain preferential treatment from affirmative action just because of his/her race.
Now, the black individual may feel like he/she didn’t earn the spot like the white student had to do. Likewise, the white individual may feel anger or envy toward the black student. Therefore, affirmative action fuels race-based animosity and potentially increases racism in America. Every student and job applicant in America should be admitted or hired based on their merits, not their race.
Affirmative action puts potentially unqualified minorities in positions that were not completely earned. When a minority is the most qualified individual for a position, white people may unfairly presume that they were the benefactors of affirmative action.
For the minorities that were somewhat unqualified, they may not be prepared for their position. The minority may not have wanted this treatment but the government or the institution enforces the policy regardless of the minority’s wishes.
While affirmative action mainly burdens white people, Asian Americans also receive mistreatment based on this policy. In the Harvard lawsuit presented by Students for Fair Admissions, Harvard was accused of discriminating against Asian applicants, not white applicants. According to nbcnews, Asian Americans applying to selective schools were afraid to write about their Asian identity in fear of being denied admission.
According to The New Yorker, “Since the nineteen-nineties, the share of Asians in Harvard’s freshman class has remained stable, at between sixteen and nineteen per cent, while the percentage of Asians in the U.S. population more than doubled.” A 2009 study from Princeton University highlights that Asian students have to score 140 points higher than white applicants to have an equal chance to be admitted to selective universities. Clearly, Asian students are being discriminated against just because of their race.
According to The New Yorker, “Since the nineteen-nineties, the share of Asians in Harvard’s freshman class has remained stable, at between sixteen and nineteen per cent, while the percentage of Asians in the U.S. population more than doubled.”
According to the Los Angeles Times, support for race-conscious admissions processes have plummeted among Chinese Americans. In 2012, 78% of Chinese Americans supported the policy while in 2016, only 41% supported it. Chinese Americans are gradually realizing that affirmative action discriminates against Asian applicants.
If America wants to remediate its racist past, it has to eliminate affirmative action. This policy does not correct centuries of racism, it perpetuates racism through discrimination against white and Asian groups. As shown, minorities have experienced injustice in the past. However, the solution is not more racism. The end result of an equal society cannot be justified by an unequal process.