María C. Ledesma is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership & Policy at the University of Utah’s College of Education. A first generation college student, Dr. Ledesma earned her Ph.D. in education from the University of California, Los Angeles. As a doctoral student Dr. Ledesma was selected to sit as the 32nd Student Regent for the University of California, the first Latina to hold this post. She has previous experience as an undergraduate admissions reader for her undergraduate alma mater, UC Berkeley, and sat as the graduate student representative for the University of California’s faculty senate committee on undergraduate admissions—The Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools. Her research interests include critical policy analysis; examining the intersections of diversity, discourse, and doctrine through the analysis of legal texts; and contextualizing and historicizing affirmative action.
As a former undergraduate admissions reader for one of the most selective and renowned public research universities in the world, I witnessed the affirmative action debate first hand. Every fall colleges and universities are inundated with applications. In many instances applicants greatly outnumber the seats available for incoming students. In these cases admissions officers must take on the difficult task of evaluating and determining who deserves to be admitted. For elite public institutions the job is made even more challenging, as they must account for how to fairly evaluate applicants drawn from both the wealthiest and best-resourced schools with applicants drawn from the poorest and most under-resourced schools. In such cases affirmative action policies are crucial.
The opposition to affirmative action is deeply entrenched. Critics of these policies often rely on ahistorical and acontextual framing to claim that affirmative action is unfair, outdated, and nothing more than a ruse for illegal quota programs. The selective quoting of Dr. King reflects this practice. Opponents of affirmative action attempt to claim the moral high ground by invoking Dr. King’s words and feigning concern for students of color, who they proclaim are hurt and/or stigmatized by the very policies that intend to help them. However, detractors of affirmative action are silent to the enormous benefits these policies have bestowed on students historically shutout of higher education. Indeed, affirmative action has integrated the college classroom and corporate boardroom precisely by taking a person’s character, including race and gender, into account during the selection process. Holistic admissions, which reviews applicants in the context of the opportunities and conditions available to them, also recognizes that schooling is linked to larger societal structures which in turn affect educational opportunities. The fact that students of color disproportionately attend over-crowded and under-resourced schools with high teacher turnover, and limited access to college preparatory coursework, speaks volumes to the character of those students who despite such challenges manage to become college eligible.
On October 10, 2012 I was invited to hear the Supreme Court’s oral arguments in Fisher v. U.T. Austin as a guest of Associate Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. Fisher represents the latest attempt of a very well funded and well-orchestrated political movement to gut all race-conscious social policy, including affirmative action. In Fisher the plaintiff, Abigail Fisher, contends that she was denied a “fair” review of her application because of the university’s decision to consider race for all of those applicants not automatically admitted under Texas’ Top Ten Percent Plan. Fisher suggested that her application as a student from a competitive high school, though academically mediocre, was more meritorious than the applications of students of color drawn from more racially segregated and economically depressed high schools. Furthermore, Fisher also claimed that her denial of admissions deprived her of a chance to fulfill her family legacy to become a U.T. Austin graduate. Instead, Fisher’s counsel insinuated that U.T. depended too much on race for its admissions decisions. To be clear, affirmative action does not substitute qualifications for race. All admitted students, including affirmative action admits, must satisfy required admissions criteria.
While an imperfect tool, affirmative action has not only helped integrate America’s colleges and universities, it has also proven to produce significant tangible benefits. For instance, the presence of a racially and ethnically diverse student body, a byproduct of affirmative action policy, has been proven to produce valuable educational benefits, such as the development of critical thinking and leadership skills, and a reduction in racial prejudice. More importantly these lessons have also resulted in long-term outcomes, such as producing a more civically engaged citizenry.
The concept of living in a colorblind society may be pleasing to the ear but evidence suggests that the reality is otherwise. Despite declarations to the contrary, affirmative action policies acknowledge an inconvenient truth that most affirmative action critics are reluctant, or unwilling, to reconcile, that race continues to matter in the twenty-first century. Today African Americans and Latinos are still much more likely to be racially profiled and suffer greater incarceration rates than their White peers. People of color, including Native Americans and South East Asians disproportionately experience greater risks of stress-induced illnesses, including diabetes and heart disease. And while the recent economic recession impacted all communities, none were harder hit than African Americans and Latinos, who were twice as likely to suffer unemployment than their White counterparts. Even White women, who have been the greatest beneficiaries of affirmative action policies, still encounter a glass ceiling when competing against White males in the work force.
Unlike what critics of race-conscious policies would have us believe, Dr. King’s speech is not an ode to colorblindness. Instead, as with affirmative action, Dr. King’s speech must be understood in historical context. In so doing we may better appreciate the urgency behind Dr. King’s message that the content of one’s character is shaped by the moral decisions we make in the face of injustice. In the words of late Justice Harry Blackmun, “In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other way.” As such, affirmative action does not undermine Dr. King’s dream—it helps fulfill it.