What Is Affirmative Action?

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On June 29th, 2023, the United States Supreme Court overturned affirmative action, making it unconstitutional for universities to consider an applicant's racial identity in the college admissions process.

The court's decision removes decades of governmental policies to promote diversity in educational institutions, increasing barriers toward students of color and other underrepresented, historical minorities in college admissions.

With all of the debate going on around affirmative action, many students might be wondering how the court's decision will impact their educational journeys. In this article from Bold.org, I'll be covering what affirmative action is, the history of affirmative action, and the ongoing implications of the Supreme Court decision.

By simplifying the process of finding and applying for scholarships, Bold.org's platform strives to increase educational access for historically marginalized students. You can create a free Bold.org profile today and start applying for scholarships that can help reduce the cost of college.

affirmative action

What is Affirmative Action?

Affirmative action refers to a set of policies and practices promoting equal opportunities for historically disadvantaged and underrepresented groups, particularly in areas such as education, employment, and government contractors. The primary goal of affirmative action is to increase diversity in various sectors of society.

Affirmative action programs seek to address historical and systemic discrimination by reducing structural barriers for underrepresented groups. In other words, these policies acknowledge that historically, marginalized students have faced challenges in accessing higher education due to structural barriers and discrimination.

In the context of college admissions, affirmative action allowed colleges and universities to consider an applicant's racial background as one factor in a comprehensive review. Applicants were also assessed based on other factors, such as grades, extracurricular activities, standardized test scores, and college essays.

Affirmative action is considered a race-conscious policy, meaning that college admissions offices actively consider an applicant’s race or ethnicity when considering applicants. Through race-conscious admissions in the last 60 years, universities have been able to create more diverse student bodies and provide more educational opportunities for historically underrepresented students.

Affirmative action applies not only to racial identity but also to other intersectional identities that have been victims of discriminatory practices, like disabled students and veterans.

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Affirmative Action in Other Contexts

Affirmative action is also applied in contexts outside of higher education. For example, employers may use affirmative action to actively recruit and hire individuals from underrepresented groups.

Government agencies may also give specific government contracts to minority-owned or disadvantaged businesses to promote economic opportunities for historically marginalized groups.

Finally, affirmative action can also manifest through scholarships or grants specifically for individuals from marginalized backgrounds. For example, here on Bold.org, donors create specific scholarships for minority applicants and scholarships for women to help these students attend and graduate from college.

history of affirmative action

The History of Affirmative Action

The term "affirmative action" was first used by President John F. Kennedy when he issued Executive Order 10925 in 1961. In response to ongoing civil rights activism, President Kennedy issued an executive order requiring federal contractors to "take affirmative action" to eliminate discriminatory practices in hiring and employment.

President Lyndon B. Johnson expanded on President Kennedy's executive order in 1965 by banning public and private organizations with a federal contract from discriminating based on race, color, religion, and national origin. Johnson's executive order was added to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.

However, President Richard Nixon's assistant Labor Secretary, Arthur Fletcher, helped expand affirmative action policies to colleges and universities. In 1969, Fletcher implemented the Revised Philadelphia Plan, requiring employers to set time-bound goals to hire more black employees. The Revised Philadelphia Plan later influenced how colleges and universities employ race-conscious admissions in admissions decisions.

Following the passing of these executive orders and the death of beloved civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Harvard University's dean of admission announced a commitment to increasing the number of black undergraduate students at the prestigious university. Harvard's entering freshman class in 1969 included 90 Black students - a substantial increase from 51 black freshmen the previous year. As the oldest private university in the nation, Harvard influenced other prestigious institutions to follow suit and actively admit more students of color.

Challenges to Affirmative Action

Since the creation of affirmative action to combat ongoing racial discrimination, several groups and individuals have challenged race-conscious university admissions policies.

Notably, in 1978, Allan Bakke, who had been denied admission to medical school at UC Davis, argued that he was the victim of racial discrimination. In its Regents v. Bakke case decision, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that colleges and universities could use race as a contributing factor in admissions decisions. However, the court overturned the use of racial quotas.

Most recently, the cases of Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard University and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina have gained substantial attention. The cases were led by Edward Blum, whose organization argued that race-conscious admissions is racial discrimination under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court's decision ruled that colleges and universities can no longer consider race as a factor in the comprehensive review of applicants.

equal protection clause

Equal Protection Clause

Understanding the Equal Protection Clause of the fourteenth amendment is crucial to understanding the recent Supreme Court decision and its implications for college admissions.

The Equal Protection Clause states that all Americans receive equal protection under the Constitution and has previously served as the basis of landmark court decisions. For example, the Equal Protection Clause was cited in the infamous Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954, declaring racial segregation in schools unconstitutional.

In the majority opinion on the ruling for Students for Fair Admission v. Harvard University, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that race-conscious admissions programs contradict the Equal Protection Clause, upholding Edward Blum's argument that affirmative action is racial discrimination.

In contrast, the minority opinion written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor asserts that the court's decision "subverts the constitutional guarantee of equal protection by further entrenching racial inequality in education."

supreme court ruling

Implications of the Supreme Court Ruling

The Supreme Court's decision to overturn affirmative action programs could have significant consequences for students of color and other minority applicants. Previous decisions from lower courts suggest that the admission rates of students of color to selective schools may experience a substantial decline.

For example, Texas's top 10 percent plan, which guaranteed admissions to state-funded Texas universities to Texas students who graduated in the top ten percent of their high school class, found that the number of students of color at state-funded Texas universities decreased after the plan was implemented.

Despite these new restrictions, colleges and universities can still utilize other methods to increase racial equity in the college admissions process. For example, many schools have already stopped requiring standardized testing as an application requirement. Colleges and universities can continue to take into consideration application essays and personal statements where students can openly and honestly express their backgrounds and experiences in their college applications.

Scholarships are a wonderful resource to help historically underrepresented students. Browse scholarships for Black students, Latinx students, Asian American students, and Native American students on our exclusive scholarship platform.

affirmative action ruling

Frequently Asked Questions about Affirmative Action

What is affirmative action in simple terms?

Affirmative action policies and programs are a tool to help increase efforts in recruiting, hiring, and promoting qualified women, minorities, and persons with disabilities. In the context of higher education, affirmative action programs help disadvantaged minority students, female students, and disabled students gain equal access to higher education institutions.

Are there racial quotas in affirmative action programs?

After the supreme court ruling in 1978 for Regents v. Bakke, racial quotas could no longer be implemented in college admissions. Rather, colleges and universities considered a student's racial background as one factor among several in the admissions decisions.

What are the benefits of affirmative action programs?

Affirmative action programs provide equal opportunity for particular groups that have faced historical discrimination in university admissions and hiring practices. They help create a more diverse student body on college campuses and ensure that talented, deserving students can access higher education.

Despite the recent Supreme Court decision, minorities can succeed in college admissions and earning a bachelor's degree! Our unique experiences and worldview empower us to be valuable campus community members and give back to others.

Check out more blog posts on our Scholarship Blog to learn how to succeed as a first-generation student and get good grades in college!