Does Race Matter? A Closer Look At Affirmative Action

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Racial disparities in the United States and the world are an increasingly convoluted issue, when, with a critical eye, it should be starkly simple: everyone matters.

History tells us that, in the race for equal opportunity, women and people of color come last in the line. This has much to do with access to platforms for individual and professional advancement, more specifically in education.

One of the cornerstones of this debate is so-called Affirmative Action, recognized as a set of laws, policies, guidelines, and administrative practices designed to “end and correct the effects of a specific form of discrimination,” which is based on the premise of incorporating women and people of color into the workforce, as well as into classrooms nationwide.

What few know is that Affirmative Action has its origins in the Reconstruction era (1863-1877), when General William Tecumseh Sherman proposed giving black families the right to land and property to improve the skills and resources of these communities, allowing them to lead “independent” lives.

It was not until 1960, and amid the Civil Rights Movement, that the proposal was discussed again, now from the perspective of guarantees for historically excluded communities’ development and growth.

From then on, the measure included “racial quotas” to be filled in the enrollment of students of color in universities, which was questioned as a “direct use” of race in categorizing communities in the country.

Today, the effort is seen as a way to diversify the recruitment of “racial minorities,” similarly considered detrimental to equal access to opportunity in the country.

As reported by The New York Times, the debate around Affirmative Action has regained momentum in California, after it was repealed twenty-four years ago with the passage of Proposition 209, and is now back on the legislative ballot.

Citing a new study, The Times states that, in nearly every measure, the ban on racial bias in college admissions processes “has hurt black and Hispanic students” in California, diminishing their numbers in the college system and similarly reducing their chances of finishing college, going to graduate school and earning a high salary.

Black business owner Ward Connerly, who has led support for Prop 209, argued, “Do you know what reinforces the idea that they’re inferior? Being told they need a preference to succeed.”

For his part, economist Zachary Bleemer conducted the first comprehensive study of the impact of Affirmative Action, as well as Proposition 209. 

Through an anonymous database of all students who applied to eight campuses in the California university system between 1994 and 2002, Bleemer tracked high school grades, demographics, income, and SAT scores. He also correlated colleges, majors, and degrees.

As the media continues, the study found that Black and Hispanic enrollment declined across the University of California system after Proposition 209 fully took effect in 1998. 

“Students who would have enrolled at the flagship campuses before the ban attended less selective universities in the system. This, in turn, pushed out other Black and Hispanic students, who moved down the ladder of selectivity. Those at the bottom lost their grip entirely, exiting the system altogether,” the Times explains.

For their part, and in opposition to Bleemer, some believe that repealing affirmative action would, in fact, benefit students of color.

Jack Mountjoy, a University of Chicago economist, says, “the existing literature on affirmative action and mismatch is a scattershot of arguments and empirical results with little substantive consensus.”

Mountjoy’s research has found small negative effects a one-percent-point decrease in graduation rates and a $1,000 decline in earnings for Black students attending more selective public universities in Texas, a state that promotes racial diversity by guaranteeing students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school class admission to a state-funded college. But the effects exist only because Black students are unusually successful by comparison at a pair of less selective historically Black institutions.

For Latino students, in particular, their population growth remains unrepresented in the classroom, and many spokespersons believe it has to do with the dismissal of the race debate.

For Maria Elena Durazo, D-Los Angeles, who supports a November ballot measure that would once again allow affirmative action in California, the current sociopolitical situation the country is living demands substantial change.

“Let’s not confuse one time with the many decades where there was no equality,” she said.

As explained by The Sacramento Bee, Durazo, vice-chair of the California Latino Legislative Caucus, suggests a position that would build on the Black Lives Matter movement’s momentum to “propel today’s electorate to support Proposition 16,” a measure that seeks to repeal Proposition 209.

The proposal remains politically divided between Republicans who reject affirmative action and Democrats who demand a step forward in the quest for equality and diversity.

“Most of us were beneficiaries of affirmative action and have watched as the next generation of Latinos, African Americans and women have missed out on equal access to college and contracting opportunities,” said Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who chairs the Latino caucus.