Posted on August 16, 2010

Affirmative Action: How Far Have We Come?

National Public Radio, August 15, 2010

As students flock back to America’s colleges for the fall semester, commentators across the political spectrum have been debating what’s become a lightning-rod issue in the admissions process: affirmative action.

And one of the key figures in that debate made her debut in the public eye as a name on a Supreme Court case.

She’s Jennifer Gratz, and in 1995 she applied for admission to the University of Michigan. With a 3.8 grade-point average, she thought she was a lock. But the school rejected her.

Gratz remembers getting her rejection letter. “There were rumors in high school that the University of Michigan used race in their admissions policy,” she tells NPR’s Guy Raz. “I remember hearing that and thinking, ‘There’s no way–that can’t be true.'”

Two years later, she sued, claiming she was unfairly denied admission because of the school’s affirmative-action policies.

The case eventually was paired with a similar suit against the University of Michigan Law School, and in 2003, the Supreme Court issued its decision on both.

Writing for the majority, Sandra Day O’Connor said a diverse student body did, in fact, represent a “compelling state interest,” which the University of Michigan was well was within its rights to pursue. What it could not do, however, was use an automatic race-point system to achieve that diversity.

Justice O’Connor’s decision concluded with a prediction: “The Court expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.”

A Quarter-Century Is a Long Time

Just seven years later, a number of commentators are ready for change.

“Affirmative Action’s Time Is Up,” Gregory Rodriguez writes in the Los Angeles Times. He argues “white racial anxiety” will be “the most significant and potentially dangerous trend of the coming decade.”

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat strikes a similar tone in his essay “The Roots of White Anxiety.” He writes: “Among the white working class . . . alienation from the American meritocracy fuels the kind of racially tinged conspiracy theories [Glenn] Beck and others have exploited.”

Douthat traces the origin of that racial tension back to college campuses: “The most under-represented groups on elite campuses often aren’t racial minorities; they’re working class whites.”


Inside the Numbers


Wise [writer and essayist Tim Wise] cites employment data that reveals 1 million black job seekers each year face discrimination. “We know that job applicants with white-sounding names are 50 percent more likely to get called back for an interview than applicants with black-sounding names, even when all the qualifications are the same,” he said.

It’s a misuse of relevant data, Wise says, to suggest working class whites from the heartland are being left out of elite schools.


“And yet the people who complain about so-called racial preference say nothing about the geographic preferences that actually do work sometimes to the benefit of often-times rural and outlying white folk,” Wise says.