The origins of the term “affirmative action” are rooted in employment law, but it was the Kennedy and Johnson presidential administrations that were the first to marry the term with efforts to promote racial equality in workplace hiring processes. In 1962, President Kennedy called on government contractors to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color or national origin.” Affirmative action became one method of combating discrimination in the workplace and educational institutions, increasing equal opportunities for people of color and holding institutions accountable for promoting equity.
While affirmative action has made meaningful progress in the last 60 years, we haven’t bridged the gap developed from centuries of systematic marginalization. Higher education in America remains rife with systemic inequality and racial discrimination. Due to the historical exclusion of people of color, legacy admissions systems often give white people generational access to higher education institutions and their channels of associated social and economic capital. Other obstacles, like the generational segregation of schools, maintain a compounding impact that prevents students of color from having an equal opportunity to succeed.
For nearly half a century, the Supreme Court historically supported race-conscious hiring and admissions. Unfortunately, yesterday the court opted to reject precedent and ban affirmative action. Now, higher education risks immediate and long-term detrimental impacts on diversity that may have ripple effects as far as the U.S. economy.
Reduced diversity on college campuses
Even during the era of affirmative action policies, Black students remained – and remain – underrepresented at elite colleges and universities, with only 6% of first-year students at elite schools being Black despite making up nearly 15% of college-aged Americans, according to a 2017 New York Times analysis. Affirmative action bans will inevitably lead to a drop in the number of students of color admitted to higher ed institutions. The Roberts Court often uses post-racialism and colorblind policies to derail civil rights legislation, despite the reality that racial discrimination remains deeply ingrained in systems nationwide.
Early studies show that bans on affirmative action can decrease the population of students of color at higher education institutions by at least 23%. In the Harvard litigation, experts concluded that ending affirmative action would reduce the number of Black and Latinx students on campus by 50%. Particularly for Harvard, eliminating race-conscious admissions would reinforce inequalities in opportunities based on race and limit the university’s ability to identify talented students of color and cultivate an environment necessary for “a healthy democracy.” Likewise, California experimented with banning affirmative action in 1998, and the number of Black students admitted to UC Berkeley alone immediately plummeted 64%, with significant declines at other universities across the state.
Reduced diversity on college campuses harms outcomes for all students
As diversity on campus declines, all students will feel the negative impacts. We live in an increasingly interconnected world that’s becoming more diverse by the second. College campuses must remain diverse to help students prepare for success in their careers and communities. Studies already indicate that diversity leads to better academic outcomes, where a greater degree of classroom racial diversity is associated with a higher GPA and a host of additional academic and social benefits, according to more than five dozen professors who argued in favor of the policy to the Supreme Court.
The American Psychological Association and other groups echo the argument that underrepresentation impacts all students, citing peer-reviewed empirical research that presents campus diversity as a government interest. They refer to a recent study of Latino and Black students that found “that experiences of discrimination were predictive of poor physical health, increased depression, poorer academic outcomes, and lower graduation rates.”
The long-term economic cost of decreased diversity
Affirmative action was one of the few existing policy efforts that effectively countered institutionalized racial inequity, and its end will only exacerbate disparities in representation and access to power and economic opportunity. With race no longer considered in higher education, its consideration during hiring processes will undoubtedly be next, limiting employers’ ability to diversify their workforce, halting significant progress toward racial equity and equal opportunity in the workplace enacting a significant economic cost.
Research has shown that a company’s performance improves alongside a heightened racial and ethnic composition. Prior to the ruling, 82 leading corporations expressed their solidarity with civil rights legal defense organizations across the nation in urging the Supreme Court to recognize the direct economic benefits of employees educated in diverse settings. With affirmative action being significantly curtailed, there is an opportunity for corporations to invest in students to close the opportunity gap. The concept I call affirmative intervention creates an opportunity for organizations to invest in underserved students and provide institutional and individual support that provides students with the best opportunities for success.
Training our nation’s future leadership is a responsibility that cannot be taken lightly. We need leaders from diverse backgrounds to understand and adapt to a diversifying nation if we are going to compete in the global economy. The economic interests of the business community are served by race-aware diversity programs in higher education and in workplace hiring practices.
The short and long-term benefits of affirmative action are well-documented, and the arguments for it are sound. From increased discussion and representation in the classroom to increased opportunities for upward mobility in the economy, it’s clear that in order to create a more equitable future, we need to ensure we incorporate race in decision-making for fairer outcomes. Too often, when opportunities are extended to historically marginalized groups, the people in power feel like they are losing something.
However, time and time again, the opposite bodes true; everyone benefits when things become more equal and equitable. Racial diversity in higher education drives a more diverse workforce. And a more diverse workforce drives a more equitable and innovative economy. Freedom of opportunity presents a competitive advantage for developing the next generation of economic prosperity.
Despite this Supreme Court’s ruling, we owe it to our history to double down on efforts that will stand up against homogeneous systems of inequality that have never worked for the nation we profess to be or the nation we aspire to be.