With the Supreme Court’s decision to once again consider race-conscious policies in university admissions, those who champion diversity and access to higher education for underrepresented minorities must once more make the case for affirmative action.
It’s disappointing that with racism at the core of recent national tragedies, the court feels the need to revisit a measure designed to make positive effects on populations traditionally oppressed and continually wronged within our country. As a past Daily Californian Senior Editorial Board has said, in a country where racism was legally sanctioned for centuries — and where institutional discrimination persists today — affirmative action is necessary to create pathways of upward mobility for those who are beaten down to the lowest place in society.
The case recently chosen by the Supreme Court is particularly relevant to college students because it is aimed at diminishing affirmative action policies within the university admissions process. The case, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, already appeared before the Supreme Court in 2013, at which time the court essentially increased the threshold by which colleges had to justify their consideration of race in their admissions processes.
When the case returned to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, the appellate court found that UT Austin had adhered to the standards stipulated by the Supreme Court. Now, as the case returns to the Supreme Court, some defenders of affirmative action worry that the court will further restrict the consideration of race in university admissions processes.
In reviewing UC Berkeley’s own admissions figures, released last week after a lengthy delay, it is clear that rejecting affirmative action has perpetuated a skewed student population that is unrepresentative of the diversity within our state. California’s Proposition 209, passed in 1996, prevents state governmental institutions — including those of public education — from considering race, ethnicity and sex in their decisions. It has had a negative effect on the overall admittance rates of underrepresented minorities at UC Berkeley, particularly Latino and black applicants.
Many critics agree that if the Supreme Court decides in the Fisher case that race-conscious admissions policies are unconstitutional, it would cause decreases in the admittance of black and Latino students to selective universities across the country, reinforcing the deleterious results that California has already experienced.
The numbers of Latino students at UC Berkeley has increased only slightly in recent years, and there has been essentially no change in the number of black students accepted for the past several years.
Students identifying as African American represent just 3.9 percent of those accepted to UC Berkeley this year, though they make up about 6.6 percent of the state’s population. Likewise, students identifying as Chicano or Latino make up 19 percent of students admitted to UC Berkeley, though they represent more than 38 percent of California’s population.
Affirmative action will not end racism. And it will not necessarily solve the socioeconomic discrepancies between races, especially noticeable in K-12 education, where all students should be given an equally strong foundation in order to have the best chance at thriving at competitive universities.
But for now, affirmative action is an important tool for creating a fairer playing field on which qualified underrepresented minority students who face systemic discrimination and unequal opportunities can better gain access to the best institutions of public higher education, which will in turn provide better opportunities for them and their children after graduation.
We encourage students, educators and all who have a stake in this issue to support efforts to make the public higher education system more equitable through affirmative action. By supporting affirmative action policies nationally, we will one day be able to undo the damage caused by Prop. 209.
In the words of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her Gratz v. Bollinger dissent, “The stain of generations of racial oppression is still visible in our society … and the determination to hasten its removal remains vital.”