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Affirmative Action in US Colleges: Learning Lessons from the Past to Build Inclusive Future

This world of ideal meritocracy is regrettably, a mirage. To assume we live in a ‘post-race’ or ‘colourblind’ society undermines the reality of many Black, Asian and racially minoritized people globally.

But why bring up this uncomfortable truth?

Because recognizing and confronting our societal shortcomings is crucial if we want to improve and grow. Despite the uncomfortable debates it ignites, the Affirmative Action policy in the U.S, and the use of Positive Action in the UK remains a crucial mechanism in dismantling the barriers of race and class, offering an opportunity to level the playing field.

Affirmative Action: A Quick Overview

Let’s quickly go over what affirmative action is. Born out of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, affirmative action refers to a set of policies and practices within governmental and educational institutions to improve opportunities for historically excluded groups in the USA. Despite the controversy it attracts, understanding its historical context is fundamental to appreciating its necessity today.

Since its inception, affirmative action has significantly influenced the racial demographics of American universities. As per the recent 2021 NCES survey, college enrollment rates increased to 37% Black and 33% for Hispanics.

On the other hand, states that banned affirmative action saw a marked decline in the enrolment of minority students. In California, for instance, after the state ban, Black and Hispanic enrolment dropped by about 60% at the University of California, Berkeley. These numbers provide solid evidence that affirmative action has a direct impact on creating diverse, inclusive college environments.

The Mirage of A ‘Post-Race’ Society

Advocates of a ‘post-race’ or ‘colourblind’ society champion the notion that we’ve somehow progressed beyond race, where the colour of one’s skin holds no bearing on one’s opportunities or outcomes. They argue that with laws in place against discrimination and with the advances we’ve made in terms of racial equality, race is no longer a significant hindrance.

However, such a viewpoint is fundamentally flawed.

It assumes that everyone begins their journey from the same starting line, a notion that entirely disregards the lasting effects of systemic racism and other deeply ingrained societal barriers. The claim that race is no longer a key determinant of life outcomes is a harmful myth that obscures the complexity of systemic racial disparities, thereby undermining efforts to address these inequities.

Statistics shed light on the stark reality. The Pew Research Centre revealed in 2017 that the wealth gap between Black and White households in the U.S. had reached its widest since 1983. The median wealth of White households was about 13 times that of Black households. Such disparity did not arise in a vacuum; it is the result of historical racial discrimination that limited wealth accumulation opportunities for Black families.

Moreover, the racial income gap remains a stubbornly persistent problem. A landmark study by Stanford University reported that the racial earnings gap has remained unchanged in the last 50 years. This continuity of income disparity indicates a deeply entrenched systemic issue rather than a diminishing problem.

As we turn our focus to comparisons with the UK, we find that most racially minoritised groups groups continue to earn less than White British employees according to the Office for National Statistics. Interestingly, the ethnicity pay gap differs across regions and is largest in London (23.8%) and smallest in Wales (1.4%).

These findings reveal a crucial truth: race continues to play a pivotal role in determining an individual’s socio-economic status, thereby influencing access to higher education. Universities are not immune to society’s ills; they reflect and are impacted by the broader societal context.

The Predicted Impact of Scrapping Affirmative Action

Affirmative action, while controversial, serves as a significant factor in maintaining diversity in higher education. Eliminating it may seem like a step towards a more ‘colourblind’ society, but such a move could have devastating consequences.

Diversity, the most immediate casualty of such a policy shift, is crucial for fostering empathy, creativity, and critical thinking. A diverse student body exposes students to different perspectives, enhancing their ability to think critically and develop empathy for different experiences. The exchange of varied ideas fosters a vibrant, dynamic learning environment that prepares students for a globally connected world.

Beyond reducing diversity, abandoning affirmative action risks deepening racial and socio-economic divides. The Century Foundation study estimated that without affirmative action, the acceptance rate for African American and Hispanic students at universities could decrease by up to two-thirds. The impact of such a decrease would reverberate beyond university campuses and into society at large.

It’s important to remember that the implications are not merely statistical. The number of racially minoritised students in positions of power and influence could dwindle in the absence of affirmative action. A less diverse leadership would further exacerbate racial disparities, not only in education but also in areas such as politics, business, and healthcare, where leaders often leverage their influence to drive change.

Affirmative action seeks to rectify historical racial injustices and break the generational chains of racial and socio-economic inequality. It provides a fighting chance to those disadvantaged by systemic barriers and creates a more level playing field.

An International Perspective: The UK Higher Education System

The issue of racial disparities in Higher Education isn’t exclusive to the United States, either. Inequalities in access to and success in higher education are a problem in many countries, including the United Kingdom. According to a survey by the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission, just 50.2% of Black British students graduate in the top two academic categories, whereas white students have a 78.8% chance of doing so.

Positive Action in the UK is necessary because the awards gap is not due to a lack of talent but to structural obstacles and institutional racism.

Towards Inclusion through Positive Action

Given the statistical evidence and the predictions, it’s clear that affirmative action has been instrumental in promoting inclusion. It begins with acknowledging the truth about the society we live in. We must shatter the mirage of ‘post-race’ and ‘colourblind’ society and instead commit to learning lessons from the past to build an inclusive future.

Although imperfect, affirmative action is a necessary beginning. We need more all-encompassing solutions that get to the heart of the problem, which includes a society where systematic racism, socioeconomic inequality, and underrepresentation has real consequences for recruitment and retention in Higher Education, limiting the widespread societal, economic and innovation related benefits that diversity brings, and the individual experiences of students from racially minoritized backgrounds.