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Op-ed: Do we still need affirmative action?

NEED TO KNOW
  • Jason Johnson is a professor of political science
  • As a college professor, he has seen the university admissions process firsthand
  • He says the Supreme Court decision to ban affirmative action in several states' universities will have a negative effect on diversity in higher education
Op-ed: Do we still need affirmative action?
Jason Johnson

Editor’s note: Jason Johnson is an HLN contributor and professor of political science at Hiram College in Ohio. He is the author of “Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell.” He is on Twitter.

For the last three years, I’ve been part of a co-ed kickball league. You know, a bunch of young professionals playing a kids’ game, getting dirty, then washing it all off with drinks afterward.

One of the best parts of the league is that it’s co-ed: At any one time, there have to be at least four women on the field. There is nothing inherent that makes men better than women at kickball, but the league organizers knew something basic about human nature: Without the requirement, there would be no women in the league or women would be forced to create a “league of their own” in order to join.

By requiring teams to play a certain number of women, it inherently puts more women in the league, creates bigger teams and, in all honesty, we end up having more fun.

It’s a sad state of affairs when a kickball league understands America better than the Supreme Court.

Kickball -- a sport for fifth-graders -- understands affirmative action is necessary. Last week, the Supreme Court reminded America that it isn’t smarter than a fifth-grader.

On April 22, the Supreme Court justices ruled on Schuette vs. the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, a case that revolved around a change to the Michigan state constitution that was voted in by a majority of the state citizens in 2006. Michigan’s public universities had used affirmative action policies for years in order to increase the diversity and quality of their public universities. And it worked: Michigan’s university system boasts two of the most prestigious and well-rounded universities in the nation, the University of Michigan and Michigan State University.

Yet some Michigan voters felt that affirmative action was wrong and that race should play no role in the admissions process. They banded together and passed a state proposition that required admissions to be race neutral. The Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action argued in court that this was basically tyranny of the majority, that if policies on race were placed in the hands of the voting public, minorities would always lose and therefore the vote was invalid, and that most race policies should be left to the courts.

A lower court agreed, invalidating the Michigan vote, but the Supreme Court, in their infinite wisdom, voted 6-2 to overturn the lower court ruling, in essence saying the state could put racial policies to a vote, which does not violate equal protection policies.

Let’s step back for a minute and really understand what this vote -- and affirmative action in general -- is really about.

Affirmative action does not put “less qualified” people in college in the place of “more qualified” people. Affirmative action does not “discriminate against whites” and it doesn’t create “quotas.” Affirmative action is a necessary policy in college admissions (and private and public employers) to combat not just overt racial discrimination but the inertia of familiarity as well.

Consider my kickball league. The vast majority of the men playing in the league today don’t hate women nor do they think women can’t play sports. But the mindset that guys are just “better” at sports does exist. Plus, men tend to play sports together, so when they envision a team, they’re going to select other people they know who are just like them.

This is not so much an overt attack on women, as much as it is a continuation of what is familiar. Left to their own devices, I don’t think men would pick women to come play, and the entire league would be the worse for it. That’s because the guys making the decision aren’t really looking at merit -- they’re picking what they know and rationalizing it afterward.

Therein lies one of the biggest problems with the Supreme Court ruling and any anti-affirmative action activism. Fights against affirmative action are personal battles dressed up in policy language. At their core, those who fight against affirmative action hate the idea that blacks, Latinos or Asians might take spots from white students in sought-after colleges. They argue that taking race into consideration is state-sponsored discrimination, but those same activists conveniently ignore the discrimination -- both passive and active -- that exists in the admissions process to begin with.

So while study after study has shown that white employers and admission officers discriminate against applicants with “black-sounding names,” or that getting into college isn’t a “zero-sum game,” or that African-American and Latino students face discrimination hurdles in the application process that whites don’t, affirmative action opponents still insist that discrimination is something minorities just have to rise above. And anything the government does to remedy it is unconstitutional.

I’m a college professor. I’ve sat in on admissions processes in state schools, small liberal arts colleges and private universities. Very rarely does admission come down to the mythical “Black applicant with a 3.4 GPA and good recommendations vs. the white applicant with a 3.9 GPA but fewer student activities.”

What’s more likely to happen is that after hours and hours of slogging through applications, we all look back and realize we’ve accepted 80% men in our incoming class. We realize that we probably just started accepting people based on what was familiar to us, with no real vision about what the college should look like or what our mission was. Were 80% of the best applicants really men? Or did we just get lazy because it was easier to understand the value of being an Eagle Scout over being on the drill team?

At play in the Supreme Court ruling was not so much whether affirmative action was right or wrong, but who actually has the power to set racial policies and decide racial questions for the state -- the courts or the voters. The justices didn’t really agree on this point: Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas said that affirmative action in general was wrong and should be done away with entirely. The four other justices in the majority argued specifically that they cared nothing about affirmative action per se, but felt that voters had the right to change any state rule they wished.

Sonia Sotomayor called shenanigans on both sets of logic. She pointed out that the Michigan vote was a way to circumvent the process, to crush minority power and to end affirmative action. Whereas before, affirmative action policies were determined by individual colleges’ boards of directors, the new law put these decisions into the voters’ hands. Lobbying a board of 12 members is a much more equal of a playing field for minorities than state-wide referendums, where more likely than not the majority will win, even if it discriminates against a minority.

Sotomayor pointed out the hypocrisy of the other justices, especially when just last year the conservatives of the court gutted the voting rights act, protecting minority votes, but now say the majority has a right to restrain the education rights of others.

The organizers of my kickball league knew that if they leave decisions of inclusion up the majority, nothing will ever change. The organization will not improve, evolve or diversify. So it took a group of leaders to impose a rule that some men probably grumbled at, but that eventually made the league stronger, more fun and more profitable. And we all realize that we’re all better off for it.

Funny how a group of professionals playing around on a Sunday afternoon do a better job of promoting diversity than the Supreme Court. Maybe the justices should spend more time on the field and less time in their own heads. 

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