Affirmative action has proved to be one of the most effective tools for expanding opportunity and promoting diversity for students of color. Race-conscious admissions policies have made campuses across the country more representative of our society. In doing so, they have helped remedy inequality created by centuries of discrimination.
Affirmative action has also become a symbol, maybe the most powerful symbol for some whites, of African-American advancement. It is a commitment to opening spaces once reserved for whites, and a reordering of power in ways that value African-American, Asian, Native American and Latino lives, voices and demands. Although it has been relentlessly attacked over the past 40 years, affirmative action has undermined the racial exclusivity of our nation’s universities.
If anything, we need to open those avenues wider, not close them. Although the progress we have made in recent decades is undeniable, it is fragile and incomplete; countless African-American, Native American, Asian and Latino students are still excluded from quality education at all levels. Undoing affirmative action now would reverse the gains we have made and dim the prospects for greater progress.
That would be a devastating outcome, not only for Americans of color but also for the entire nation. We have long known that diverse student bodies are in everyone’s interest. College campuses are important engines of integration because they help break down racial barriers that cause distrust.
Learning with and from people of different backgrounds allows students to understand a wide range of perspectives, a skill essential for democratic citizenship. And studying in diverse settings prepares our young people to lead our businesses, our military and our government in an increasingly globalized world.
Affirmative action is not just sound public policy, however. It’s also the law of the land, and the judiciary has left no doubt what the law is. In four decades, the Supreme Court has validated affirmative action three times. Just last year, in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the court reaffirmed that “a university may institute a race-conscious admissions program as a means of obtaining the educational benefits that flow from student body diversity.” (In Fisher, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund played a key role litigating on behalf of the University of Texas’ Black Student Alliance and its African-American alumni.)
All of this…