Affirmative Action Is Not Enough

Big day for the University of Texas.

Photographer: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

From the start, nearly everyone agreed that affirmative action should be temporary. But as the man says, and as the Supreme Court agreed on Thursday, tomorrow is a long time.

In a 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the University of Texas’ consideration of race in admission decisions is constitutional, extending a five-decade experiment that has produced mixed results and endless controversy. The injustices that affirmative action are supposed to remedy still exist -- but additional strategies are needed to address them.

In addition to stoking resentment among many whites and Asians, affirmative action has never enjoyed unqualified support even among many supporters. In the 1978 case that first considered the constitutionality of racial preferences in college admissions, Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, Jr. called the idea “odious to a free people whose institutions are founded upon the doctrine of equality” -- and that was in an opinion approving of their use. Given the country’s ugly history of slavery and discrimination, the court reasoned, the practice was necessary but temporary.

How temporary? In that 1978 case, Justice Harry Blackmun hoped that the use of race in admissions would come to an end “within a decade, at the most.” Twenty-five years later, in another decision upholding their use, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote: “We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary.”

Thursday’s decision in Fisher v. University of Texas makes no mention of a possible expiration date. It also places renewed emphasis on the educational benefits of diversity -- a worthy goal that will require more than continued use of racial preferences.

To end underrepresentation of blacks and Latinos in colleges, administrators must start engaging in more meaningful efforts to increase the number of qualified applicants. They can begin this work by redoubling their recruitment efforts in high schools with large black and Latino populations. Racial preferences have made it easy for them to avoid this work.

High schools must also do more: Guidance counselors often do a poor job informing students of their options and encouraging them to aim high. Too many students who might be accepted to selective schools -- and get the financial aid necessary to attend them -- are instead steered to community colleges, where drop-out rates are much higher.

Local and state elected officials have an important role to play as well. Rather than tolerating low-performing public schools by bowing to union pressure that prioritizes contract benefits over student achievement, elected officials who represent black and Hispanic populations must embrace reforms that give students, teachers and principals more freedom to innovate -- and hold them more accountable for results.

Finally, there’s the role of the federal government. President Barack Obama has proposed tying federal aid to the number of students from low-income families who graduate with Pell grants. Racial preferences often benefit students from middle-class families. Income-based incentives would help ensure that colleges focus more on black and Hispanic students with the greatest needs.

The problem of underrepresentation, which racial preferences originally attempted to address, has not gone away. Solving it will require new approaches that focus less on tipping the scales and more on improving recruitment, counseling and achievement.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.