As the president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, Michelle Asha Cooper has worked to give low-income, minority and other underrepresented groups a pathway to a college degree. Inclusion is a key part of the nonprofit’s mission, just as it is central to Thursday’s historic Supreme Court ruling to uphold race-conscious college admissions. But the decision is about much more than that, Cooper says. She wrote the following post to offer a broader perspective on the significance of Thursday’s decision.
By Michelle Asha Cooper
Affirmative action has been and still is legal. That summarizes the conclusion of the latest round of court debates.
In Thursday’s 4-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the consideration of race, along with other factors, in college admissions is constitutional. The Court’s ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas not only affirms that diversity is a compelling educational interest, it also marks the fourth time in four decades that the same ruling has been determined by the Court. Thereby, confirming that we don’t yet live in a post-racial society.
Historical remnants of discrimination, which undeniably still plague this country, are now compounded by contemporary forms of bias and intimidation. Because college campuses are microcosms of the larger community, societal wounds can surface in these environments quite easily. For example, we have all heard stories about students engaged in racist activities, such as the incidents at the University of Oklahoma and University of Mississippi.
Contemporary forms of discrimination, unlike these overtly racist acts, are often structural and masked as “good intentions.” The ongoing affirmative action debate is a clear example. Arguments against race-conscious policies are shrouded in the language of equality and meritocracy — the belief that individuals should just “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” But this belief in merit fails to see that some people don’t even own boots, and as a result do not have straps upon which to hoist themselves.
The Supreme Court’s decision confirms the reality of the struggles of many Americans. It affirms the country’s willingness to take bold, and for some even unpopular, steps to remedy America’s most vexing challenges. And, it shows support for educational equity and solidifies diversity as a hallmark of American higher education. In other words, the Court’s ruling validates the need for sensible reflection and implementation of race-conscious policies that can enhance diversity, remedy discrimination, and combat structural racism.
Another point inherent in the ruling is recognition that affirmative action is about the economic bottom line — a strong workforce and a strong economy. This ruling comes at a time when the importance of attaining a postsecondary degree or credential is critical. By 2020, 65 percent of all jobs will require some higher education and training, an increase from 28 percent in 1973. But even as demographic shifts alter the face of America, far too many students of color lack the opportunity to access and complete a college education.
In fact, fewer African Americans (29 percent), Latinos (21 percent), and Native Americans (24 percent) obtain college degrees compared to Whites (45 percent). Research has consistently shown that it becomes much harder to secure jobs and earn decent wages without having attended college. Unemployment rates for African Americans (8.2 percent) is almost two times higher than Whites (4.1 percent) and the national average (4.7 percent), showing that even as the economy improves, people of color still experience much volatility. And while some may argue that education cannot account for all the factors that cause unemployment, with such contrasting data, it is hard to argue that the inability to access quality education and the implicit nature of discrimination do not affect these outcomes.
In today’s increasingly diverse society and globally-interconnected world, diversity and access to opportunity is just as much an economic imperative as it is a social one. As a result, our nation’s colleges and universities must recruit, develop, and maximize the talent of individuals from diverse communities. They must ensure that all students, regardless of racial background, have the cultural currency — the attitudes, skill sets, and experiences — to work in and among diverse clients and communities. After all, in the 21st century, affirmative action is not just about opening doors. It’s about developing a pipeline of talent that reflects the composition of the broader society and is prepared to assume leadership roles to sustain America’s economic and global competitiveness.