Life after Affirmative Action

Since the Johnson Administration in the 1960s, programs that collectively have come to be known as “Affirmative Action” have come into effect. These policies were thought to improve the employment and educational opportunities for members of minority groups. The typical criteria for affirmative action were age, disability, gender, ethnic origin, and particularly race. They were designed as a government remedy to the effects of long-standing discrimination, an attempt to level the playing field in America.

One of the greatest issues with Affirmative Action was that it fundamentally created a tiered system that lowered the standards for certain groups. In other words, it selected “less qualified” people in positions over more capable persons based primarily on their status in a “protected class.”

This had negative unintended consequences. It created problems in two directions. First, it promoted “reverse discrimination.” It created a systemic prejudiced against other racial groups (e.g., in academics, Asian applicants were frequently limited despite their higher aptitude than others accepted). In addition, it fostered a perception that certain minorities were “less qualified” even if they were not the recipients of an Affirmative Action process. Ironically, this may have reinforced stereotypes that are ultimately the foundation of prejudice. In effect, these programs exacerbated the same problems (prejudice and discrimination) that they purported to cure.

Over time, these Affirmative Action programs evolved. In the late 1970s, “racial quotas” and specific minority “set-asides” were challenged. Although the Supreme Court barred quota programs, it allowed colleges to continue to use race as a factor in making admissions decisions. California passed Proposition 209 in the mid-90s, which “prohibited all government agencies and institutions from giving preferential treatment to individuals on the basis of their race or sex.” Since that time, there have been numerous other Court decisions that have further restricted Affirmative Action (particularly “race-based” programs).

In 2022, two separate lawsuits were filed, challenging the admissions programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina. In a recent landmark decision, the Supreme Court ruled (6–3) that the admissions programs of both schools violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. Specifically, the Court held that both programs violated the permissible restrictions in considering race that had previous been established: that the programs could not operate on the basis of stereotypes; that they could not use race as a negative factor in rejecting applicants (because they were not members of a preferred racial group); and that programs could not continue indefinitely without a predetermined end point. This decision is widely understood to effective end of race-based affirmative action programs in college admissions in the United States.

Affirmative Action had its pitfalls. However, it was an attempt to overcome a tilted playing field (which we “must” acknowledge still exists). If these programs don’t work or are unconstitutional, what can we possibly do to rectify past injustices? We cannot try to resurrect failed policies of the past, nor can we simply let things be as they are and hope for the best.

Perhaps we should look at the problem from a different perspective. Rather than lowering the standards, we should create mechanisms to overcome barriers and ameliorate deficiencies that have disadvantaged individuals. We need to promote increased performance rather than lower the criteria.

I would use the military academies as an example. USMAPS (the United States Military Academy Preparatory School) has the mission of preparing applicants that have potential but that may not yet be ready for entry into West Point. “One of the central goals of the academic program is to fully challenge all Cadet Candidates while recognizing the diversity in their educational backgrounds.  The school’s approach is to enhance the skills Cadet Candidates already possess while providing a solid basis for improvement in the skills which do not yet meet West Point entry levels.”

There are already numerous exclusive and expensive “Prep Schools” (like Exeter Academy) that have a strong track record in placing students at exclusive colleges and universities (for those that can afford it). Why don’t affluent institutions, like the Ivy League schools (that have very large endowments to work with) sponsor focused preparatory programs oriented at building proficiencies in those with potential but without the wherewithal or academic background to meet objective standards? They are certainly financially capable. State sponsored schools could also potentially create such programs (although I am not convinced that the governments mired in bureaucratic imperatives can figure this out).

We must overcome the “everyone is a victim” mentality that permeates our society. Our academic standing in the world is faltering. We should view the Supreme Court decision as an opportunity instead of a setback. We need a “positive” approach to creating a more equitable society in which opportunities truly are available to everyone. To do that we must focus on improving skills rather than lowering standards.

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