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Three Myths About Affirmative Action

With the nation focused on the U.S. Supreme Court’s consideration of President Obama’s  health-care legislation this spring, many in higher education are talking about another blockbuster case: the challenge to a racial affirmative-action program at the University of Texas, to be considered this fall. Some of the early commentary, however, is creating misconceptions about what is at stake in the Fisher v. Texas litigation.  Here are three recent myths that have surfaced.

Affirmative action in higher education is about white women.

Many suggest that while the media focus on race, white women are in fact the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action.  Over at the Chronicle‘s Brainstorm blog, for example, Michele Goodwin argues that it is ironic that white women such as Jennifer Gratz, Barbara Grutter, and now Amanda Fisher have “lead the charge against affirmative action,” given that “women were (and continue to be) primary beneficiaries of affirmative action and civil rights laws, particularly in education (and business).”

It is true, of course, that white women have benefited tremendously from civil-rights laws, but Gratz, Grutter, and Fisher have not challenged laws that prevent discrimination; they have challenged preferences in college admissions.  And while women have benefited from some affirmative-action programs in higher education, particularly in the sciences, it has long been established that in undergraduate admissions (the issue at stake in Fisher), it is men who are more likely to receive affirmative action. At the College of William & Mary, for example, 43% of male applicants and 29% of female applicants were admitted in the fall of 2008.  A Kenyon College admissions officer acknowledged in a New York Times op-ed in 2006 that “the standards for admission to today’s most selective colleges are stiffer for women than men.”

Affirmative action helps address economic inequalities.

Some supporters of affirmative action conflate race and class to suggest that affirmative-action policies can address economic inequalities. In a second Brainstorm post on affirmative action, for example, Goodwin argues, “Access to a ‘good’ education is treated as a luxury if one is poor, and an entitlement for the wealthy.”  She goes on to say, “Americans born into poverty or the working class have huge obstacles to overcome.”  Both points are well grounded in a wide body of research, but today’s racial affirmative action programs in higher education rarely reach poor and working-class students of any race.

Research finds that 86% of African-Americans at selective colleges and universities are middle or upper-middle class.  (The whites are marginally wealthier).  While race-based affirmative action roughly triples the proportion of African-American and Latino students in selective colleges compared to their likely representation based on grades and test scores, research finds that low-income and working-class students are represented at roughly the same rate as they would be were grades and test scores the basis for admission. Even with strong race-based affirmative-action programs in place, 74% of students at the most selective colleges come from the richest quarter of the population, and just 10% from the bottom economic half.  If we want to address class inequality, we should not rely on race as an imperfect proxy for economic status.

The attack on affirmative action in Fisher goes beyond race.

Some have confusingly suggested that the Fisher challenge to the University of Texas policy goes after all types of affirmative action, including efforts to give a leg up to socioeconomically disadvantaged students.  Texas gives a preference not only to under-represented minorities, but also considers a student’s academic records in the context of her “socio-economic status, whether the applicant is from a single-parent home, language spoken at home, family responsibilities, socio-economic status of the school attended, and average SAT or ACT score of the school attended in relation to the student’s test scores.”

A March 4 Washington Post editorial, for example, suggested that the Fisher case is challenging the “use of race-based factors – or factors that serve as proxies for race,” such as “whether an applicant came from a one-parent household or where more than one language is spoken.”  But, in fact, Fisher doesn’t attack class-based affirmative action programs but points to them – and the Top 10% plan admitting students at the top of every high school class – as the types of policies that can produce racial diversity without resorting to race.  To its credit, on March 22, the Post issued a correction, acknowledging, “The March 4 editorial, ‘Revisiting race-based admissions’ mischaracterized the legal challenge to the University of Texas at Austin’s admissions policy.  Petitioner Abigail Fisher argues that the policy is unconstitutional because it explicitly permits consideration of race during the admissions process.”

The issue of affirmative action is complex and there are very strong arguments on both sides of the equation.  But as the debate moves forward, it’s important to correct the myths and wrestle with the significant issues at stake on the merits.

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