Joseph Sohm

Society

Are We Seeing the Beginning of the End of Affirmative Action?

While many Americans prepared to attend cookouts and watch fireworks displays in commemoration of Independence Day 2018, Donald Trump was busy rescinding the affirmative action guidelines created for colleges and universities to refer to during their respective admissions processes in order to guarantee more diverse student bodies. This move shares the theme of many of his previous decisions in that it a) nullifies the work of his predecessor and b) offers further damning evidence that a blatantly racist president occupies the Oval Office. Although the guidelines aren’t legally binding, the Trump administration’s decision to strike them from existence has many convinced that K-12 school districts are next in the line of fire, and that we are now witnessing the beginning of the end of affirmative action.

After breaking the story of the rescinded college guidelines, Wall Street Journal’s Michelle Hackman summarized the move as the administration’s way of “encouraging schools to look at race-neutral options,” which could hypothetically entail “looking at someone's income to encourage diversity at schools.” Hackman also said that encouraging colleges and schools to adopt a new set of measures points to the Trump administration’s determination to eliminate the use of race as a factor in lawsuits.

“Even if it's not binding law, the way that they pursue investigations or lawsuits in the future could show that they are leaning toward, you know, the use of race being very narrowly tailored,” Hackman told NPR. Despite that assessment, racial bias was what reportedly prompted Trump to tap the Department of Justice’s civil rights division to investigate and file suit against universities deemed to have utilized affirmative action to discriminate against white applicants in April 2017, according to The New York Times.

The National Conference of State Legislatives defines affirmative action policies as “those in which an institution or organization actively engages in efforts to improve opportunities for historically excluded groups in American society.” Since former Pres. John F. Kennedy signed affirmative action into law in March 1961, arguments both for and against its implementation have not ceased. Proponents laud it as a necessary educational and professional equalizer, while some believe the policy is flawed and actually harms the very people it was created to help. In some cases, affirmative action appears to have little to no impact on the number of blacks and Latinos at top U.S. colleges. But given the various studies and government reports that have deemed American schools as overwhelmingly racist and discriminatory toward students of color, keeping affirmative action in place would seem to be the more beneficial and just choice for those who desperately need whatever assistance it can provide, however imperfect.
Black and Hispanic students are still vastly underrepresented at these colleges overall, and they fare even worse in states with bans on affirmative action.
The fact is affirmative action was never intended to become a permanent fixture, but the ongoing lack of diversity on college campuses, for example, suggests the policies remain necessary. As FiveThirtyEight notes, “Black and Hispanic students are still vastly underrepresented at these colleges overall, and they fare even worse in states with bans on affirmative action. Black students are underrepresented by at least 20 percent at 79 percent of the country’s research universities; only two research universities in states with affirmative action bans have at least the same proportion of black students as the state’s college-age population, and one of those, Florida A&M University, is a historically black college or university (HBCU).”

Trump would have the public believe affirmative action should be done away with and replaced by non-race-based measures to create diversity. The obvious issue is that this stance completely (and most likely, intentionally) overlooks the fact that racial differences are a major component of fostering a diverse environment, which is an incredulous position to take, especially as the leader of a country that grows more racially diverse each year.

Even for individuals from underrepresented communities who are able to earn college degrees, salaried jobs and other achievements that contribute to upward mobility, the fact remains that for people of color in the U.S., the so-called American Dream is still quantifiably harder to achieve. And those associated difficulties are indisputably by design. This guideline reversal serves as a form of governmental gaslighting that, like revisionist textbooks and curriculums that purposely misinform students, denies the discriminatory manner in which historically marginalized U.S. citizens have been and continue to be treated.
This guideline reversal serves as a form of governmental gaslighting that, like revisionist textbooks and curriculums that purposely misinform students, denies the discriminatory manner in which historically marginalized U.S. citizens have been treated.
It’s very much akin to attributing the rash of white Americans calling 911 on blacks to a general unwillingness on behalf of “people these days” to effectively communicate with their neighbors. Denying the obvious root issue has proven to be reductive at best. At worst, it’s incredibly dangerous—especially with an administration that displays and contributes to an overall dismissive attitude toward America’s messy racial past and present.

Affirmative action may not be the sole answer to all of this country’s race-based inequities, but without it, we would certainly have a hell of a lot more problems with respect to diversity. While the removal of the guidelines rightfully warrants concern, the current administration cannot completely dismantle affirmative action, as long as the Supreme Court continues to deem it as constitutional. Now that Trump has nominated conservative Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh as the replacement for retired Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy—who notably provided the swing vote on several affirmative action court cases—these anti-discrimination policies could soon become a thing of the past.

In a perfect world, we wouldn’t require legally enforced mechanisms of this nature to ensure fairness and humane treatment for all. However, with an administration that appears incapable of accountability and treating members of underserved groups with worthy of respect, it’s downright frightening to think about where we’d be without policies that empower marginalized people who are simply trying to live their best lives.