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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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.