Understanding Affirmative Action: An Argument in Two Parts

The Fisher v. University of Texas case has put the debate over affirmative action front and center among discussions of racial justice…again. This debate has found its way into the spotlight repeatedly since the SCOTUS ruling on Bakke v. University of California made racial quotas illegal in 1978. I thought I’d reference that to remind us that racial quotas are, in fact, illegal.

There is much to say about the affirmative action debate. So much, in fact, that I’ve decided to respond in two parts. Part one is a discussion of some of the historical context for Affirmative Action. Part two will address the thorny issue of what many are calling anti-Asian quotas in articles like this, and this, and this. The perception of quotas limiting the number of Asian American students attending the most elite institutions is inspiring a minor Asian-American backlash against affirmative action that, though blown out of proportion by the media, is nonetheless troubling.

Here’s part one:

Today, as a result of a 2003 SCOTUS ruling, race can be considered among other factors but not as the only factor nor in association with quotas in order to achieve diversity goals in college admissions. In 1978, McGeorge Bundy, former president of the Ford Foundation, (quoted in a terrific Colorlines piece) summed up the diversity rationale for race conscious admissions.

If I am a qualified black…(c)an my presence and participation enlarge the educational experience of others?…If the answers to these questions, or some of them, is ‘yes,’ are not my qualifications that much improved, and improved precisely because by my blackness?”

According to SCOTUS, the answer is, yes, in certain cases your qualifications are improved by your race. But, that’s just one qualification. Many other qualifications may also apply, such as gender, age, disability, grades, test scores, where you’re from, speaking more than one language, or, in some more banal cases, being a celebrity, or having played football in high school, even to a college with no football team but a strong bias toward athletic participation (though probably not one’s ability to get through school days hungry, study through urban noise and cold in poorly insulated housing, or juggling school, part-time work, and babysitting) as an indication of discipline and balance.

And considering race among other factors is precisely what it appears the University of Texas did. In a useful primer on Affirmative Action, Dr. Oi-Yan Poo, made this point very clearly, writing,

The University of Texas filed a brief noting that in 2008 the average SAT score for admitted students, who were not ranked in the top 10% of their high school graduating class, was 1285 out of 1600. Not only did Fisher not rank in the top 10% of her high school class, her academic profile was pretty mediocre with an 1180 SAT and 3.59 cumulative GPA. Exactly 47 applicants with lower SAT scores were admitted that year, and 42 of them were white. There were also 168 Black and Latino applicants with higher academic scores than Fisher who were also rejected by the University of Texas.

Yet here we are again, struggling through this discussion. It’s as if the notion of racial preferences in school admissions is a novel thing in the U.S. But it’s not, is it? The reality is that for most of U.S. history, racial preferences were not just business as usual but considered essential to assuring white racial purity and supremacy. In many instances, barring the matriculation of African Americans was justified with the claim that African Americans were intellectually inferior, sexually depraved, and more suited for manual labor (conveniently, at a time when African Americans constituted a significant part of the absolute bottom of the low wage workforce).

That started to change in 1962, when James Meredith made the audacious decision to exercise his constitutional rights by applying to the University of Mississippi in spite of being Black. Mr. Meredith took his case to SCOTUS and won, but Mississippi Governor, Ross Barnett, passed a law  prohibiting anyone with a past state crime conviction from admission specifically because Meredith had been convicted of false voter registration in the course of protesting Mississippi’s racist voter registration rules.

When finally the U.S. Attorney-General intervened on Meredith’s behalf, white students and community members rioted. 500 federal marshals were sent to to stop the riots. 160 marshals were wounded, 28 by gunshots, and 2 bystanders were killed.

This is the context for the current fight. The struggle over racial preferences in admissions has been waging for a very long time. For most of that history, the fight was not about whether racial preferences could be given to people of color, but about whether we could be admitted at all. For a big chunk of that history, racial preferences were illegal. But whites kept people of color out by simply acting illegally to stop anyone who dared follow the law.

So, if affirmative action is a problem, it’s a problem created by white racial preferences. If not for that, we wouldn’t need race-based affirmative action at all. And, like I said before, lots of characteristics are considered in admissions, including characteristics that are mainly exhibited by whites, like having parents who went to Harvard before you, or that you attended any one of many virtually all white preparatory academies that receive preference among some colleges, for example. So, in spite of affirmative action, we still haven’t entirely eliminated de facto white racial preferences.

When we talk about affirmative action, we should consider all of this and more, and there’s much more, including what I’ll publish next.


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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

One reply on “Understanding Affirmative Action: An Argument in Two Parts”

Thank you for this article. I wasn’t clear on how to look at when white students claim they are experiencing bias by not getting into colleges because of affirmative action programs for students of color. Your explanation, especially the quote/finding by Dr. Oi-Yan Poo, made it crystal clear for me. Seeing the statistics of Fisher’s scores as compared to other Black and Latino students who also got rejected despite higher academic achievement was eye-opening. I have also often thought about how the privilege of primarily white students (I am white) who are able to pad their college admissions applications with community service projects they conducted in India or South America, or many extracurricular activities, because they had the means to do that. I always hope that schools don’t put too much emphasis on those things (opportunities) that not everyone has equal access to.

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