Columns / Discourse / October 17, 2012

Debating columnists: Affirmative action

On Oct. 10, the United States Supreme Court began to hear oral arguments for a case that could put an end to affirmative action programs at colleges and universities. The case, Fisher v. University of Texas, concerns a white woman denied admission to the university’s Austin campus. She claims that race-conscious university admissions policies violated her rights under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

The court could rule in a number of ways, ranging from strongly upholding current admissions practices to declaring affirmative action unconstitutional to declining to decide the case, which would be a narrow victory for affirmative action supporters.

The question at the center of this case is this: when will it no longer be necessary to consider race a factor in admissions decisions?

Opponents of affirmative action argue that it has served its purpose. They say that the inequality gap has been sufficiently addressed and that affirmative action laws now constitute a kind of reverse racism that violates the equal opportunity rights of white students.

As you might imagine, the data on educational inequality in no way supports this claim. We’ve made gains in some areas, lost ground in others. Overall, the educational outcomes of minority races still lag behind those of their white counterparts. Because of these disparities, I still believe affirmative action is a necessary policy; however, addressing inequality in educational access is not the only reason to support affirmative action.

If you’ve been anywhere near a college admissions office lately (or have seen a college view-book), then you know “diversity” has become a major selling point in higher education. Although many institutions have different definitions of what constitutes diversity, the subtext is usually that the college boasts a robust percentage of students that come from underrepresented minority groups.

While some of this diversity-touting can become nauseating and, at times, uncomfortably hyperbolic, compelling social science research findings support the notion that pursing diversity for diversity’s sake has unambiguously positive outcomes for all students attending a particular college.

According to a 2000 report released by the American Association of University Professors, pursuing diversity by using race-conscious admissions policies improves the college learning environment and supports a multitude of educational goals. I’ll call this the educational imperative for diversity. Learning to negotiate cultural differences, communicate with students and professors from varied backgrounds and tolerate unfamiliar views and practices is an essential strategy needed for moral and personal growth, as well as professional success.

These benefits accrue to all students, even to those for whom affirmative action wasn’t designed to support. It’s a shame that this argument for affirmative action is rarely mentioned in public discourse. And, judging from news coverage of the court, it was not mentioned in last week’s deliberations either. Although it is hard to quantify the benefits of increased campus diversity and multicultural educational environments, it is no less important than redressing educational inequality.

I strongly encourage you to reflect on your college experience and ask yourself how you have benefited from attending an ethnically and culturally diverse college campus. We should be doing everything we can to foster, not curtail, ethnic diversity. And until even more significant gains are made in expanding educational access for minority students, race-conscious admissions policies will be absolutely necessary to ensure that colleges and universities across America are robust, multi-ethnic learning environments.

Joshua Gunter
Joshua Gunter was the liberal half of "Debating Columnists" during fall 2012 and winter 2013. He graduated in winter 2013 with a degree in art history and currently works as an account researcher for the Brunswick Group in New York City. At Knox, he also served as co-editor-in-chief of Catch magazine.

Tags:  affirmative action College diversity education ethnic

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