America Still Needs Affirmative Action

With the Supreme Court considering Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative
Action and Fisher v. University of Texas, affirmative action has entered into the public eye again. Notably, The Economist’s cover story last week argues that its time for an end to affirmative action
because,

Before the 1960s, when the foundations of affirmative action were first laid down,
most blacks were poor, few served in public office and almost none were to be
found flourishing at the nation’s top universities, corporations, law firms and
banks. None of that is true today.

But is it really time to get rid of affirmative action? There are two arguments for
affirmative action: first that diversity in education is good for students (there is solid
research backing up this assertion, which The Economist recognizes) and second that the
obstacles an African-American student has to overcome just to apply to college merits a
leg up.

Since The Economist concedes the first point (arguing that while diversity is
good, we can achieve it without affirmative action), the second argument is the one they
primarily attack. And yet it couldn’t come at a worse time. The wealth gap between
whites and blacks has grown, in fact, it has tripled. The study by Thomas Shapiro,
Tatjana Meshede and Sam Orso find that a college education is a huge driver of that gap.
A study by Martha J. Bailey finds that the college entry gap between the rich and poor
has widened drastically over the past 40 years, driven largely by inequality.

The truth is, African-Americans aren’t flourishing in public office. There are only
two African-American senators (and there has only ever been one black senator in the
south, and he was appointed, not elected). There is currently only one black governor and
there have been few in the last 100 years. Much of President Obama’s cabinet is
conspicuously white and male. The truth is that blacks are drastically underrepresented in
the political sphere. There have only been 13 black CEOs of a Fortune 500 company.
Ever. Another study finds that a mere 14 percent of college presidents are minority.
African Americans still deal with the legacy of racism and oppression. Many
blacks alive today can remember redlining, and lack of a home is still a major driver
of black poverty. The average inheritance of a black baby boomer is $8,000 while the
average inheritance of a white baby boomer is $65,000. Elementary and high schools
are still highly segregated and schools with high minority populations are underfunded.
In these circumstances, affirmative action is not an unfair boost, it is rather an equalizer.
Students who grow up in poverty, attend an underfunded and understaffed school, who
don’t get preschool or summer school and still manage to score close to pampered child
in public school certainly deserve aid.

The Economist believes that with the abolition of affirmative action, we’ll have
more meritocracy. But that’s unlikely. Martha Bailey (cited above) finds that the main
reason for the college entry gap between rich and poor is not due to cognitive ability,
but rather poverty, “Even among those who had the same measured cognitive skills as
teenagers, inequality in college entry and completion across income groups is greater
today than it was two decades ago.”

But does affirmative action help? The Economist cites the research of Richard
Sander extensively. Sander published a study in 2004 that found that black students
who were accepted into school because of affirmative action failed to obtain a degree
and therefore there should be less affirmative action. Odd that The Economist doesn’t
even consider a critique of that study, published later that year by David L. Chambers,
Timothy T. Clydesdale, William C. Kidder, and Richard O. Lempert. Chambers et al
found that,

Out analyses of both the NSLSP [National Survey of Law School Performance]
and BPS [Bar Passage Study] thus reveal that Sander is wrong when he concludes
that the current lower performance by African Americans in law school is ‘a
simple and direct consequence of the disparity in entering credentials between
blacks and whites.’ It is not.

They find that without affirmative action, “both the enrollment of African American law
students (particularly at the fifty or eighty most selective schools) and the production
of African American lawyers would significantly decline.” The same thing is likely to
happen in other colleges. Without affirmative action, the already dismal numbers for
African-Americans entering and graduating college may decline even further. Someday
we’ll be at a point where we can end affirmative action. The Economist (and much of the
Supreme Court) is jumping the gun.

This article originally appeared on Alternet.org.

Contact Sean McElwee at seanadrianmc@gmail.com

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