Getting beyond Racism: Diversity, Equal Opportunity, and Affirmative Action

Updated September 13, 2010

Our Position

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of a colorblind society will not be achieved if we simply ignore the lasting impact of centuries of racial discrimination. As Justice Blackmun put it in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke: “In order to get beyond racism, we must first take race into account. There is no other way.” Affirmative action acknowledges the fact that race continues to have a very real impact on society. When properly implemented, affirmative action is an essential step toward ensuring that diversity becomes the rule, not the exception.

Talking Points

Affirmative action establishes equal opportunity. These programs were developed to provide opportunities to deserving candidates otherwise overlooked or disadvantaged because of institutional discrimination. They mean no harm to other candidates. They simply seek a level playing field.

Affirmative action is rooted in the idea that diversity is a good thing. Academic and professional settings should reflect the ethnic, racial, and gender diversity that America embodies. Fostering diversity not only increases fairness to individuals but also makes it possible for everyone to learn from each other.

Affirmative action doesn’t limit the ability to make an informed decision. Through its use in affirmative action, race is just one of many factors that promote diversity. Academic institutions, for example, take any number of other factors into account, including parental alumnus status, life experience, athletic ability, high school attended, and county of residence.

Affirmative action doesn’t mean quotas. In Grutter v. Bollinger, the 2003 University of Michigan Law School case, the Supreme Court ruled that it is lawful for colleges and universities to operate affirmative action programs that take race into account. The ruling did not mandate or even authorize a quota that schools must reach. In fact, the companion undergraduate case, Gratz v. Bollinger, specifically rejected any system that appeared to set quotas.

So-called “affirmative access” programs are not an acceptable alternative. “Affirmative access” is the phrase often used to describe percentage-based plans that call for the admission of the top percentage of students in individual high schools in a state to selected state institutions of higher education. Such percentage-based plans are deficient for several reasons. They: depend on enduring segregation with in the community; perpetuate inequality through the use of flat percentages that ignore a student’s qualifications and chances for success; do not apply to private or graduate schools; and are too similar to quotas.

Legislation

State. Various states have tried to enact prohibitions on affirmative action. In Michigan, just two weeks after the Supreme Court’s Bollinger rulings, Ward Connerly, who led the 1996 movement for passage of the anti-affirmative action ballot initiative (Proposition 209) in California, announced that he would launch a similar initiative in Michigan. His so-called “Civil Rights Initiative” (CRI) amended the state constitution to outlaw the use of racial factors in state university admissions, state hiring, and contracting. It was adopted by a 58% to 42% margin in November 2006.

Ward Connerly was at it again in 2008 with his “Super Tuesday for Equal Rights” project. CRI failed to make the ballot in Arizona, Missouri, and Oklahoma. CRI failed 51% to 49% in Colorado. CRI passed 58% to 42% in Nebraska.

Federal. Affirmative action has also been raised – and subject to attack – at the federal level. One example is the Department of Transportation’s disadvantaged business enterprise (DBE) program.

DBE was created in 1983, during the Reagan Administration, and requires recipients of federal transportation funds to set flexible goals for the inclusion of DBE-qualified business in their projects. Project goals can be waived if the prime contractor has difficulty obtaining competitive bids. This is considered fair, flexible, and necessary to prevent government funding from subsidizing the discriminatory practices that were once widespread in the construction industry. Combating discrimination and promoting the growth of small business are crucial steps in overcoming barriers for traditionally disenfranchised communities. However, former Representative Tim Walberg (R-MI7) made repeated attempts to harm DBE and similar programs. In 2007, the House passed a Walberg amendment that would have “prohibit[ed] the use of funds . . . by the Department of Transportation to promulgate regulations based on race, ethnicity, or sex.” The Senate did not act on this amendment and no similar language made it into the final bill.

Action

Local and state lawmakers, as well as your Representative and Senators, all have a role to play in the affirmative action debate. Contact them and tell them not to ignore the present-day effects of past racial discrimination. Let them know that it’s important to take advantage of opportunities to promote diversity. Urge them to stand up against attacks on affirmative action. Write letters to the editor of your local newspaper explaining the importance of equal opportunity.

Further Reading

American Association for Affirmative Action
Americans for a Fair Chance
Asian American Justice Center
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

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