As a white student sues a university for alleged racial discrimination, is this the end of affirmative action?

An educational system that has historically been set up to reinforce inequalities will take a lot of work to dismantle, says Lola Adesioye.

In 2008, high school graduate Abigail Fisher of Sugar Land, Texas, was disappointed to find that her application to the University of Texas at Austin, a leading public college, had been rejected.

If Miss Fisher had finished in the top ten percent of her year, which she didn’t, she would have been granted automatic admission to the university under Texas’ merit-based top 10 per cent rule, which admits to the public university system any high school student in the state who finishes in the top ten percent of his or her graduating class.

Fisher’s application, on the other hand, went into a pool in which a variety of factors are taken into consideration. Fisher – who is white - believes that her application to the University of Texas was denied because of her race.

On Wednesday, her case against the University of Texas, which she claims violated her rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment, will go up before the Supreme Court for review.

Although Fisher's case has already been seen by lower federal courts, and the constitutionality of UT's actions upheld, it is possible that this case could result in an overturning of a landmark 2003 ruling which allowed the University of Michigan’s Law School to use race in a "narrowly tailored" way to "further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body" and which set the precedent for UT.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, one of the judges who presided over the 2003 case, stated at the time that:

The Court expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.

However, if Fisher and her lawyers have their way the disbanding of affirmative action may happen far sooner than Justice O’Connor predicted.

This potential smackdown of affirmative action is good news for those who believe that racial diversity can be achieved through race-neutral policies alone. In a report released last week researcher Richard Kahlenberg claims that "universities [in states in which race-conscious admissions are prohibited] have implemented creative methods of assuring diversity."

However, this is not what the University of California – which is the largest selective higher education institution in America and operates a race-neutral admissions process and  – says about its own experiences. A case study released this summer revealed that

Although applications to the flagship campuses have doubled since 1995,and all groups have seen reductions in the percent of applicants offeredadmission, African American and Latino admittees have been reduced by 70 to 75 percent at UCLA and UC Berkeley, compared to just 35 and 40 percent for Asian and white applicants.

It goes on to say:

This disproportionate decline reflects the inequalities in the California educational system that fails to prepare African American, Native American and Latino students for highly competitive selection processes irrespective of their intellectual ability or likelihood of succeeding in their studies.

In fact, in a brief submitted to the Supreme Court in support of the University of Texas in this case, the University of California makes it clear that it does not believe that race-neutral policies are sufficient:

"[our] experience establishes that in California, and likely elsewhere, at present the compelling government interest in student body diversity cannot be fully realized at selective institutions without taking race into account inundergraduate admissions decisions…"

While race-neutrality sounds good in theory, I am not convinced that it is even possible in a country which is permeated by racial inequality, and in which racial disparities in the education system remain so stark. How is it possible to measure students in a race-neutral way if race plays such a role in educational outcomes and achievements? In order to have an effective race-neutral process at the top of the education chain, surely that would also require that there is race-neutrality from the outset?

Yet, the fact is that the inequalities that affirmative action originally sought to redress still remain. For example, while segregation in education is no longer legal, it is still ongoing, with some suggesting that it is even worse today than it was in the 1950s. This is partly as a result of continued residential segregation. In New York City, for example, it has been found that:

A student’s educational outcomes and opportunity to learn are statistically more determined by where he or she lives than their abilities.

In America, the achievement gap in education begins before kindergarten and continues through high school where African American and Latino students lag far behind their white counterparts. It would seem strange for there to be no policies at a higher education level which seek to take into account these ongoing racially-based structural imbalances. 

Education has long been considered the pathway to social mobility and in a world that requires better educated and more knowledgeable workers, not having equal opportunity of access to that education presents not only an issue for the individuals, who are more likely to find themselves consigned to lower-income work that requires lower skills, but also for the country which must maintain its competitiveness in the global marketplace.    

Unless more effective policies are put in place to address the deeper issues – racial inequalities, poverty, poor schools and low expectations, decaying urban areas, residential segregation and more – the result of stopping affirmative action can only be decreased chances for minority students and an increasingly unequal society.

Addressing these fundamental issues would have to go far beyond affirmative action in higher education, to a thorough review, revision and reform of the very nature of American society, as regards its minority citizens. It would actually require America to put in a great deal of work to ensure that from the very environment that the minority child is born into is a nurturing and more expansive one.

High poverty areas – in which African-American, American Indian and Latino children are six to nine times more likely than to live than white children – would need to be transformed. There would need to be a deeper level of commitment from the government to the eradication of poverty, which appears to have been overlooked in this election cycle with the focus being on the middle class and wealthy.

Ironically, the more one thinks about what is needed, the more it is clear that lack of educational opportunity and access is itself the main barrier to the solution of these issues. But an educational system that has historically been set up to reinforce inequalities will take a lot of work to dismantle.  

Some have suggested that class-based affirmative action would be a better, or perhaps more palatable, alternative to race-conscious affirmative action. Of course, there are minority students who are not from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and white students who are. President Obama has said that his daughters, for example, would not need the benefit of a race-based affirmative action. 

However, although the inclusion of class is welcomed and necessary in order to facilitate and formulate a more nuanced look at the various factors that affect opportunity and achievement, this is inadequate on its own. Race and class intersect, yet they are not the same thing and therefore one cannot be replaced with another. Research also suggests that the effect of this would be to increase the number of low-income white students and would not make up for racial inequality. Research from the University of California’s case, has found that:

While African American and Latino youth are much more likely to come from low-income homes than either whites or Asians (53 per cent of African American and 59 per cent of Latino youth are low-income compared to just 22 per cent of white and 28 per cent of Asian youth in California), less than half of the low-income students admitted to the freshman class in 2011 at UC were from underrepresented groups.

I am of the opinion that for as long as race continues to affect people's chances in life, it must be considered as a factor, because it is indeed a factor.

Perhaps if affirmative action is struck down, this would shine more of a spotlight on America’s education system as a whole and more work will be done to narrow the achievement and opportunity gaps between white Americans and minorities from an earlier age. Affirmative action may go away, but the reasons for its implementation still, unfortunately, remain. 

Although all eyes are on the forthcoming presidential election, the case of Fisher v University of Texas has the potential  to usher in a new reality into America and to change the course of this nation. Let’s hope that the Supreme Court justices make the right decision.

The clock tower of the University of Texas at Austin. Photograph: Getty Images

Lola Adesioye is a British-born commentator, writer and broadcaster of Nigerian heritage. She has been described as “one of Nigeria’s top 10 wordsmiths”, “an emerging face to watch” and “one of 11 sharp black commentators in America”.

Lola’s written work – mostly commentary and features on topical UK, US and African social, political and cultural issues - has been published in a variety of international publications.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.