Affirmative Action in Public Education is at Risk

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(Special to NewsOne) — This week, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments in the case of Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action (PDF). The question in this case is whether a state may pass laws that single out race as a factor to be excluded from policy-making, including college admissions and public employment.

At issue is an amendment to the Michigan constitution which bans public universities from considering race, among other factors, in school admissions policies. Proposal 2, the ballot initiative that enabled the amendment, bans race-conscious college admissions policies even though donors, church groups and alumni may still advocate to have their constituents included in such decisions.

For example, while a university alum is free to lobby for their child to be admitted under “legacy” admissions programs, it is expressly prohibited to advocate for students of color to be better represented in Michigan’s public universities. This is far from so-called equal protection.

The Supreme Court has already found diversity policies to be constitutional, repeatedly ruling that race can be a factor in public education. Yet despite this well established principle of anti-discrimination law, opponents of such policies pushed Proposition 2 as a way to go around the law – sponsoring and putting considerable dollars behind the ballot initiative to undermine civil rights protections. And sometimes the language on ballot initiative is intentionally deceiving, making it unclear to people what they’re actually voting for or against.

Opponents of affirmative action may elect to pretend race and racism are not relevant in contemporary education. In reality, racial equity in education is still an aspiration, and our educational institutions must be allowed to implement policies which confront and reduce disparities head-on.

Use recent history as a guide. Since Proposal 2 passed in Michigan in 2006, African-American undergraduate enrollment fell by 33 percent, even as overall enrollment grew by 10 percent. Latino enrollment since 2006 has also seen a 10 percent decline. From 2004 to 2010, African Americans earned 10.3 percent of the medical degrees in Michigan, but in 2012 those numbers dropped by more than half at just 4.8 percent.

Yet expanding opportunity, and ensuring that talented students from all backgrounds receive a fair shot to be considered, are just a fraction of the benefits of racial diversity policies. There are far broader advantages that affect all of us.  A significant body of social science shows the benefits of learning with people from different backgrounds and perspectives. They include an increased ability to relate and interact with diverse populations, as well as reduction in prejudice and critical thinking skills. Educational diversity is also critical to our nation’s future in a global economy and increasingly interconnected world.

In the interest of furthering diversity in public education, the Supreme Court must affirm its commitment to the Equal Protection Clause and uphold a lower court’s ruling that the Michigan law has an unfair and disproportionate impact on racial minorities.

States should not pass, and courts should not uphold, policies that unfairly single out one group of students. Universities, meanwhile, should be allowed the flexibility to attract students with a variety of perspectives, ideas and backgrounds, in order to create the best possible educational environment for their students.

Judith Browne Dianis is co-director of Advancement Project, a multi-racial civil rights organization.

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