Saving Affirmative Action from Itself

Affirmativeaction2 Nicolaus Mills in Dissent:

THESE DAYS the future of affirmative action in higher education is in jeopardy. A series of states—among them Michigan, California, Florida, Nebraska, and Arizona—have banned the consideration of race, ethnicity, or gender by any unit of state government, including public colleges and universities. As a result, state-run institutions of higher education with the greatest capacity for accepting minorities are increasingly less able to do so.

Nor can these institutions turn to the public for support on affirmative action. By a 55-to-36 percent margin voters believe affirmative action should be abolished altogether, and by a 61-to-33 percent margin they oppose affirmative action for blacks in hiring, promotion, and college entry, according to a 2009 Quinnipiac University poll.

This negative view of affirmative action in higher education can, in part, be explained by the rightward shift of the country since 1980 and the pressures the current recession has put on state budgets. But even more important is the way in which affirmative action has strayed from its 1960s roots and lost sight of its own history.

Today, the only way affirmative action in higher education can save itself from losing still more public support is for it to become far more inclusive in practice. It needs to reach high-school students who for a variety of reasons—not just because of their race or ethnicity—have been disadvantaged in the struggle to get into college.