“You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please. You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, “You are free to compete with all the others,” and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.”
– President Lyndon B. Johnson, Commencement Address at Howard University, “To Fulfill These Rights,” June 4, 1965
In a perfect America founded and operating on colorblind meritocracy, admission to selective institutions of higher learning, boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies and access to federal contracts would be determined solely by ability, skill and talent, never having to take into consideration race or gender – and certainly never having to take into consideration a moral, national imperative to redress wrongs rooted in a long history of slavery, sexism, structural racism and prejudice. But as we all know, that is not the America we call home.
We live in an America that has (at some points more fervently than others), perpetually strived for the elusive ideals of freedom, liberty and justice – for all. But as we collectively labor through the mud of inequality and the residue of injustice that disproportionately affects communities of color and women, it is at best cynical and at worst callous that the very federal agency charged with addressing the impact of discrimination on historically disadvantaged groups is now, under the direction of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, preparing to attack those laws, policies and guidelines set in place to end and correct the effects of a discrimination and “improve the employment or educational opportunities of members of minority groups and women.”
According to a leaked memo, the Department of Justice is planning to redirect resources from its civil rights division to investigate and sue universities that use “intentional race-based discrimination” in their admissions process because of its purported negative effects on Asian-American applicants. But let’s be clear, this is an attack on equality and education for marginalized groups.
This brazen, transparent, counterproductive assault on affirmative action, coupled with other proposed initiatives, would seal the door of opportunity shut for millions of Americans. The Trump administration has proposed slashing the Department of Education’s funding by over $9 billion; withholding much needed federal money from high-poverty public schools; and reducing funding for federal work-study and Pell Grants, making it harder for lower income and Black and Hispanic students to afford higher education.
In a nation where education is the most effective tool most of us have to climb the American ladder of success, and is practically synonymous with opportunity and achievement, the executive branch of our government appears driven to keep those who can least afford it away from a quality education at all phases of schooling.
There are a lot of myths out there about affirmative action. The most prevalent one – the one that fires up the aggrieved Trump base – is that hordes of Black and Brown applicants are taking away opportunities rightfully earned by better-qualified white applicants.
The truth is, according to the latest data, the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action have been white women. And though the administration insists it is motivated by a sense of fairness, no attention is being paid to the growing advantage socioeconomic and legacy status play in college admissions.
Like race or gender, many selective universities consider an applicant’s legacy status as a factor in the admissions process, which puts students from marginalized, low-income and underrepresented communities at a distinct disadvantage. A 2011 Chronicle of Higher Education study found that a legacy connection gave an applicant a 23.3 percentage point advantage over a non-legacy applicant. And applicants whose parent attended the school gained an average advantage close to 50 percentage points.
That our universities and workplaces review candidates through a race- and/or gender-conscious lens is an acknowledgement of the outsized role racism and sexism currently play and have historically played in our nation’s history.
The Supreme Court has ruled – time and again – that schools, in particular, have the right and “compelling interest” to use race in a limited way to achieve a diverse student body. The goal is not to disadvantage any group, but to recognize and attempt to remedy centuries of injustice.
The National Urban League unequivocally condemns any effort by the Department of Justice to undermine the still necessary role of affirmative action in college admissions, taking us back to a time when African-Americans, women and other marginalized groups did not have equal and fair access to higher education or employment.
I look forward to the day when a man or woman will neither be preferred nor penalized based on gender, color or socioeconomic class. Perhaps affirmative action, as a lasting solution, is complex and imperfect, but so is the nation we call home.
By Marc H. Morial