Published: June 29, 2023
Pittsburgh Post Gazette


In 2022, the Supreme Court heard two cases in which the petitioner asked the court to overturn affirmative action policies in college admissions. These policies have led to significant economic progress for the Black, Hispanic, and Asian people across this country for over 50 years. America cannot afford to lose them.

Filing suits against both Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, Students for Fair Admissions requested that the Court overturn their 2003 ruling on Grutter v. Bollinger. The court had ruled that the University of Michigan Law School’s limited use of race in choosing students served a compelling educational interest in creating diversity.

Students for Fair Admissions asserted that any use of race in admissions violates the Fourteenth Amendment, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the federal law (42 U.S.C. § 1981) covering equal rights under the law, and is therefore unlawful. The decision is due any day now.

The group further alleged that Harvard is violating Title VI by penalizing Asian-American applicants, engaging in racial balancing, overemphasizing race, and rejecting workable race-neutral alternatives. These admissions policies use race as only one factor in a holistic review that also considers, as University of North Carolina points out, where applicants live, whether they have served in the military, and their socioeconomic backgrounds.

Affirmative action is, again, a key element in overcoming the legacy of discrimination and creating greater equality in education and other areas of life. However, more must be done to correct the racial imbalances that exist on all fronts, especially in the attainment of higher education.

The evidence of more positive race-conscious admissions processes could not be clearer. It has been well documented that college enrollment numbers for the Black, Hispanic and Asian populations have significantly increased in the decades following affirmative action.

At the same time, the devastating impact of removing affirmative action has been illustrated just as clearly. In 1996, California voters approved Proposition 209, which effectively banned affirmative action in the state. In 1998, the first year the ban took effect, the number of Black and Hispanic first-year students fell by nearly half at University of California Los Angeles and University of California Berkeley.

One report from 2020 showed that, by the mid-2010s, Prop 209 had caused a cumulative decline in the number of early-career Californians of underrepresented minority groups earning over $100,000 by at least 3%. Additionally, abolishing affirmative action has effectively deterred more than 1,000 Black, Hispanic and Native American students from applying to the UC system every year.

This could become the reality nationwide if affirmative action is banned.

I understand the concept that everything should be equal when it comes to race, and I would agree if this were a perfect world. However, it is unjust to not work to correct four hundreds of years of race-based inequity. We live in a country where many marginalized populations face disproportionately negative outcomes when it comes to attaining education and employment. It is clear that we must create equity in order to break through these barriers. “Equality” is making sure that everyone has a pair of shoes, but “equity” is making the shoes useable by assuring that they fit.

Black people in particular have yet to experience equity in this country. Intelligence is not restricted to any particular race. However, due to advantages and resources afforded to certain groups, the educational and employment playing fields are not level. Some are starting the 100-yard dash at the 50-yard line, while other folks are still trying to find a ticket to get into the race.

Opponents of affirmative action are trying to drive a wedge between marginalized groups, to keep us from working together to break through inequitable barriers.

The decision to overturn affirmative action will further perpetrate inequities, leaving many marginalized groups out of our nation’s top educational institutions, and ultimately, out of the most sustaining employment opportunities. As a result, there is yet another negative impact on diversity in our workforce and greater society. Many of these same institutions that long were inaccessible to people of color would see their current gains in racial equity outcomes undone virtually overnight.

I wish we lived in a country where we did not have to consider race in the higher education admission process, but we are not there yet. There are pervasive inequities in our society that create barriers for people of color.

Reversing the precedent set in Gutter v. Bollinger would set us back in our efforts to create more diversity in our educational institutions and society at large. We can — and must — do better!

Carlos T. Carter is president & CEO of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh. His previous article was “3by30 helps Black Americas buy homes.”

First Published June 29, 2023, 5:30am