Bloomberg View: In Defense of Affirmative Action

Illustration by Bloomberg View

The U.S. (i.e., the Obama Justice Department) has filed a brief in support of the University of Texas in Fisher v. Texas, which will probably be the Supreme Court’s most important case next year. Abigail Fisher, a white student, wanted to go to college at the University of Texas at Austin but didn’t get in. So she sued, charging the university with violating the various legislative and judicially imposed rules governing the use of race in college admissions.

It’s clear from the briefs in this case that the Supreme Court’s attempt nine years ago, in Grutter v. Bollinger, to clarify this muddy situation hasn’t worked. The Grutter case contrasted undergraduate and law school admissions at the University of Michigan. It held that a rigid mathematical formula (such as Michigan’s undergraduate policy), where extra points were given to minorities, was unconstitutional at a state institution, but a more flexible policy (such as one used at the law school) could use race as one of many factors without violating the Constitution. “Holistic” is the word that the court used, and it has become a standard one-word description of what the court wants.

The University of Texas’s undergraduate admissions system is a combination of numeric and holistic considerations. The university’s main campus is required by law to admit the top 8 percent of each high school graduating class in the state. That uses up most of the slots. The rest are awarded on the basis of two different indices. An explicit favoritism for blacks and Hispanics was dropped in 1996, after a lower court ruled that race was an illegitimate consideration. Then it was added back into the mix—holistically, of course, only as one of many factors—in 2004, in response to Grutter.

The purpose of affirmative action is not, if it ever was, reparations for wrongs done to a student’s ancestors. Nor is it intended primarily for the benefit of the minority students who do, in fact, benefit. The purpose is diversity. This much-abused notion has a legitimate core: In a multicultural society, a state university (or any university) ought to reflect as many of the diverse strands of society as possible. This is part of the education it offers its students and part of the service it performs for the state.

The question is whether UT’s particular stew recipe meets the Grutter standard. Is it holistic enough? The university argues that, while there may be plenty of blacks and Hispanics on UT’s huge campus, many individual classes have few or none. This, to us, seems like a stretch. Affirmative action can be toxic. We agree with the Supreme Court that it ought to be reserved for vital state interests and applied as sparingly as possible. And we agree that it should be temporary, not a permanent part of the American landscape. But it’s still needed.


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