WHAT’S more important to how your life turns out: the prestige of the school you attend or how much you learn while you’re there? Does the answer to this question change if you are the recipient of affirmative action?
From school admissions to hiring, affirmative action policies attempt to compensate for this country’s brutal history of racial discrimination by giving some minority applicants a leg up. This spring the Supreme Court will decide the latest affirmative action case, weighing in on the issue for the first time in 10 years.
The last time around, in 2003, the court upheld the University of Michigan Law School’s affirmative action plan. A divided court ruled, 5 to 4, that “student body diversity is a compelling state interest that can justify the use of race in university admissions.” Writing for the majority, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said, “We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.”
In the intervening period, scholars have been looking more closely at how affirmative action works in practice. Based on how they interpret the data that have been collected, some of these scholars have come to believe that affirmative action doesn’t always help the students it’s supposed to. Why? Because some minority students who get into a top school with the help of affirmative action might actually be better served by attending a less elite institution to which they could gain admission with less of a boost or no boost at all.
The idea that affirmative action might harm its intended beneficiaries was suggested as early as the 1960s, when affirmative action, a phrase introduced by the Kennedy administration, began to take hold as government and corporate policy. One long-simmering objection to affirmative action was articulated publicly by Clarence Thomas years before he joined the Supreme Court in 1991. Mr. Thomas, who has opposed affirmative action even while conceding that he benefited from it, told a reporter for The New York Times in 1982 that affirmative action placed students in programs above their abilities. Mr. Thomas, who was then the 34-year-old chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, didn’t deny the crisis in minority employment. But he blamed a failed education system rather than discrimination in admissions. “I watched the operation of such affirmative action policies when I was in college,” he said, “and I watched the destruction of many kids as a result.”