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What Killing Affirmative Action Means for the American Workplace

15 minute read
Janell Ross is the senior correspondent on race and identities for TIME.

There is good reason Supreme Court Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson worked into her much-talked about dissent in the cases where the majority killed race-based affirmative action, her sense that education saves lives.

So, I write this with no hyperbole intended. Some of us are probably going to die.

Yes. The net effect of the decision to end, at all but the nation’s military academies, race-conscious affirmative action but leave in place admissions preferences for athletes, people related to faculty, alumni, and major donors – a group that a 2019 study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found included 43% of Harvard University’s white students and just 16% of other groups – is going to be that significant.

Read More: The ‘Infamous 96’ Know Firsthand What Happens When Affirmative Action Is Banned

The reason is a simple matter of math, but also the complicated but foreseeable effects of what it means when a country, only growing more diverse by the hour, fails to do all that it can to develop a well-educated and diverse workforce. As Justice Jackson wrote in her dissent:

“Beyond campus, the diversity that UNC pursues for the betterment of its students and society is not a trendy slogan. It saves lives. For marginalized communities in North Carolina, it is critically important that UNC and other area institutions produce highly educated professionals of color. Research shows that Black physicians are more likely to accurately assess Black patients’ pain tolerance and treat them accordingly (including, for example, prescribing them appropriate amounts of pain medication). For high-risk Black newborns, having a Black physician more than doubles the likelihood that the baby will live, and not die.”

The idea that a nation needs an educated workforce is at most times – outside of a presidential campaign swing through a part of America where college-graduation rates sit below the national average – beyond dispute. Away from the ecosphere where alarmist conservative information outlets assign continued white dominance oxygen-like importance, the same is true of U.S. Census Bureau’s population projections. They indicate that by 2045, white Americans will no longer comprise the American majority.

Yet when we talk about affirmative action, much of the focus is what it means for colleges and universities, for individual students and their sincere hopes and dreams. And there are, no matter what Associate Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in his concurring opinion or seethed about since his Yale University Law School years, well-documented educational and social benefits to a diverse student body. But it also matters a great deal what happens after those accepted to these institutions graduate. If we do not have a diverse group of students reflective of our country on campus, we will not, as the nation itself becomes one with no single racial or ethnic majority, have a diverse professional workforce. The absence of that will have a profound effect on our courts, our schools, our hospitals, and just about every other major institution and function of American life. If nothing else, know this: companies with more diverse leadership also tend to be more profitable for the simple reason that different experiences and perspectives often produce different ideas.

Higher education has so long been central to American conceptions of leadership and readiness to captain the critical institutions and experiences that shape all of our lives that nine out of the first 10 Presidents – all white – were college men, most of them educated at the College of William & Mary or Harvard University. (The 11th President was educated at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, one of the schools, along with Harvard University, at the center of the affirmative-action cases decided last week.)

Read More: The ‘Infamous 96’ Know Firsthand What Happens When Affirmative Action Is Banned

And in the 1940s when the U.S. government planned for the post-war future and what turned out to be one of the largest, longest, widest-spread economic boons, Congress passed what would become colloquially known as the GI Bill. The policy was supposed to cover the cost of a college education for some 15 million soldiers returning from the battlefields of World War II, keep them off the unemployment rolls, prevent another depression, and better equip the country with a workforce ready for the coming world. But the GI Bill got the unanimous support of Congress and President Franklin Roosevelt’s signature in 1944 only after what ought to be a notorious compromise: States rather than the federal government would administer access to the benefit, a demand of Southern members of Congress worried about how to maintain a social order with white people at the top and Black people at a nearly inescapable bottom if education and other relatively new federal creations like the 40-hour workweek and Social Security were available to everyone.

Overall, the share of American adults with bachelor’s degrees or more rose from 4.6% in 1945 to 25% in 1995, according to the National Archives. (That figure is almost 34% today.) But Southern administrators denied GI Benefits to most of the more than 1 million Black returning soldiers. Black veterans were also denied the bill’s housing benefits that helped large numbers of white male GIs get bank loans and buy homes after the war.

All of that has something to do with the way that higher education remains such a profound source of anxiety and attention, the base element of a potent cocktail that’s left some people drunk on entitlement and belligerent or at least irrational about anyone else getting a sip.

“But there is a way in which the narrative about affirmative action gets spun in such a way that it seems raceless, ‘We just want fairness,’” says Shaun Harper, a professor and provost of business and education at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, about the language often used of late by those who argued that race-based affirmative action simply had to end. “White people feel that they are being discriminated against and their highly deserving children are the victims of reverse racism.”

How else does one explain why debate, disputes, and court cases related to affirmative action have all but raged since only a few years after it began? Why else did two of the whitest states in the union – Idaho and New Hampshire – bother to ban affirmative action in college admissions, public-agency hiring, and several other arenas in 2020 and 2012, respectively?

How else shall we make sense of all the chatter about fairness in college admissions when the K-12 feeder system is anything but? Here, in the wealthiest country in the world, we have a patchwork quilt of education policy and quality yet one persistent pattern. That is a massive funding gap between K-12 schools serving mostly white students and those educating kids who are not, says Kimberly Robinson, a onetime roommate of Justice Jackson at Harvard Law, who today serves as a professor of law, education, and human development as well as public policy at the University of Virginia. That’s the school that Thomas Jefferson built in 1819, the start of what the university describes as a “bold experiment – a public university designed to advance human knowledge, educate leaders and cultivate an informed citizenry.” As recently as 2016, the nation’s K-12 racial school funding gap amounted to about $23 billion, according to a report released in 2019 by EdBuild, an education research and funding advocacy organization.

“We do not distribute educational opportunity equally,” Robinson says. “What I think is so interesting is the perception that we have equal educational opportunity. People think we have that.”

Read More: How the End of Affirmative Action Could Affect the College Admissions Progress

If there are any bits of good news on the access-to-education front, they are this: Community colleges and other schools that enroll most of the people who apply – all but about 150 to 190 of the most selective schools – have in the last decade seen overall college-graduation rates (after six years) rise to a high of 62.3%. And while transfer and completion rates at community colleges after six years suggest there’s much work to be done, in the last decade or so, the number of colleges trying to connect community-college students with opportunities to complete their educations at schools up and down the prestige ladder has grown, says Nolvia Delgado, executive director at Kaplan Educational Foundation.

Still, it is the more selective colleges and universities, which have higher graduation rates for all groups of students and often lead to greater professional opportunities, that are at the center of public conversations about considering race in admissions. And, according to Tim Wise, an activist and the author of books like Under the Affluence: Shaming the Poor, Praising the Rich and Sacrificing the Future of America and Dispatches From the Race War, far too many of these discussions echo the arguments once made by the likes of David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard who in the 1990s managed to secure nearly 40% of the vote in Louisiana’s Republican gubernatorial primary with a version of white-grievance politics including opposition to affirmative action on the grounds that it discriminated against white Americans.

The way we talk about the debate has shifted over the years, but the idea that accounting for historic and ongoing disparities in education, access to the resources and knowledge of the tactics that allow some students to test well, family inexperience with the college-going process, or the added obligations that a poor student, for example, may need to take on to help keep their family housed causes harm to others – that is, allowing special consideration for Black and Latino applicants means fewer opportunities for white and Asian ones – remains at the heart of the arguments made by affirmative-action opponents, including conservative activist Edward Blum, co-founder and president of Students for Fair Admission, which was the plaintiff in the affirmative-action cases decided last week.

“He’s a man with a crusade,” says Wise, who first encountered Blum in Houston in the 1990s when Blum was challenging a program that sought to diversify who receives public contracts for goods and services like construction. “And he’s spent the last three decades, in and out of court, more or less shopping for the ‘perfect’ victim of affirmative action.” Blum was directly involved in affirmative-action cases that went before the court in 2003, 2013 and 2016, which did not produce the results he wanted. In 2013 he was also involved in a case that ultimately toppled a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. In a decision similar to the majority’s view in the affirmative-action cases decided last week, the majority held that federal oversight of changes to voting districts and voting-related activities in places with a history of discriminatory activity was no longer necessary. It effectively differentiated and victimized those states, and it was the states and counties subject to the law that were in need of the court’s protection.

And yet Students for Fair Admissions never produced a single student with a specific and personal claim of direct harm, says Aarti Kohli, executive director of the Asian Law Caucus, an affiliate of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the nation’s largest and only pan Asian civil rights organization. Instead, the organization submitted statistical analyses and argued that Asian American students had now become the victims of affirmative action at Harvard and white and Asian students at UNC. It traded on the racist appeal of the model minority myth – the idea that Asian Americans are uniformly smart, capable, hardworking, and humble living evidence that there’s nothing wrong with America or its systems except whatever ails Black people themselves – and garnered a lot of public attention with news stories that seemed to accept Blum’s claims as fact, Kohli says. Students for Fair Admissions even purported to speak for Asian Americans, she says, as if Blum’s take were the Asian American view, which it is not.

Read More: The Ambitions of the Civil Rights Movement Went Far Beyond Affirmative Action

Affirmative-action opponents like Blum have argued lately that not even people of color favor race-based considerations. But the nation’s attitudes about affirmative action are complex and often difficult for pollsters to accurately capture, says Sally Chen, an economic-justice program manager with Chinese for Affirmative Action, a California-based civil rights group. Chen is also a Harvard University graduate, a first-generation college graduate and one of only two students who submitted a brief to the Supreme Court in the Harvard University case. The precise language of poll questions about affirmative action and the language in which they are asked appears to significantly shape the measurement of Asian American opinion, Chen says. Those where pollsters ask respondents if they support values that were the goals of affirmative action and do so in more than one language tend to produce data showing a majority of Asian Americans support affirmative action. What’s more, social media platforms and other channels of information exchange have, over the course of the case, been inundated with false information in multiple languages and dialects to which Chen and her colleagues have begun to organize pushback.

“In the face of such intense misinformation, I am proud to see that there is still a very strong contingent of Asian Americans who support affirmative action,” Chen says, “even if TikTok is flooded with ‘I didn’t get into blah, blah, blah university’ videos.

A majority of all but two subgroup of Asian Americans supported affirmative action in a multilingual Pew Research Center poll of 7,006 adults completed in January. Chinese American and Vietnamese American support came close at 45% and 48%, respectively.

In many ways, the language and the methods keep evolving, but the point remains unchanged. Justify racial exclusion and subordination for social, economic, and psychological gain and then, when the consequences of those choices show up in exponential disparities, point to that as so-called evidence that the oppressed group should continue to be constrained to a position from which it is difficult, if not a statistical anomaly, to climb.

Read More: How the Supreme Court’s Affirmative Action Decision Affects the AAPI Community

Of course, if declaring the enduring influence of race and ethnicity in life opportunities and outcomes simply over because you say so retains some appeal, consider this: a diverse collection of doctors and biological scientists, many of them far from the manor born, probably saved your life in the last five years.

In January 2020, when then President Donald Trump, a man history will no doubt consider a specialist in the dark arts of white grievance and entitlement politics, went over to the National Institutes of Health, he wanted to meet with the people most essential to the work. At the table were world-renowned vaccine and infectious-disease specialists like Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Barney Graham, and the man who led the human-genome project, Dr. Francis Collins, director of the NIH. They are all older white men. Sitting next to Graham was Kizzmekia Corbett, an NIH research fellow, a then 34-year-old Black scientist whom Graham had named the scientific lead of the vaccine-development team.

When Corbett and her team – scientists scattered all over the country, including a white man who, like Corbett, was the first in his family to go to college, and a Chinese American immigrant trained at an American school – figured out the molecular key to a working coronavirus vaccine and early human trials proved effective, Corbett and Graham were working from their respective homes. But they each broke down and cried.

Today, Corbett, a viral immunologist, is an assistant professor of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and an assistant professor at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute. She’s there and she was at the NIH, her mother told me back in 2020, because her third-grade teacher, a Black woman, told her parents an ugly truth: get this child to a better school district, do anything you must because this one will never allow a little Black girl into the classes to develop the capacity the teacher could see Corbett already had.

That is the thing. None of us know where or how or even what form tomorrow’s challenges will take. Assuming that the answers and the leadership needed to face and surmount them rests with one shrinking population poses a tremendous risk to all of us.

Or as Justice Jackson said in her dissent, “Do not miss the point that ensuring a diverse student body in higher education helps everyone, not just those who, due to their race, have directly inherited distinct disadvantages with respect to their health, wealth, and wellbeing.”

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