Affirmative Action’s Legacy and What Comes Next

Issue 281

There are other ways to achieve affirmative action’s goals than the ones the Supreme Court recently struck down.

Linda Martín Alcoff Aug 7, 2023

Affirmative action was never a perfect solution. On the day I got my first real academic position, I ran into an acquaintance who asked how my job search was going. When I shared the news of my success, it took only a split second before he replied, with a funny look on his face, “They must have been so happy to get a good woman.” (Philosophy in those days was a male-dominated profession, almost all white, more like the hard sciences than the humanities.) 

My short-lived elation just as immediately took a dive. I could see what I was in for, from colleagues, students, and those both unfamiliar and familiar with my work. One can never prove their worthiness against imaginary competition. The sense I had that day has been confirmed throughout my career — as recently as this summer, when an award I was given was castigated on Twitter as only explainable by affirmative action. 

This issue of stigma has figured prominently in Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s arguments for eradicating affirmative action. In his partial dissent against the Grutter v. Bollinger ruling in 2003, he wrote that, because of affirmative action, all Black people “are tarred as undeserving,” as it raises the question of whether their advancement was based on merit. Thomas argued that “asking the question itself unfairly marks those blacks who would succeed without discrimination.” 

With his help, the Supreme Court hammered the last nail in the coffin of affirmative action in a pair of rulings it issued on June 30. Its demise began back in 1978 with the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke decision, which forbade “racial quotas” but allowed universities to consider race as one possible factor in admitting students. That decision was affirmed in the Grutter case, in which the University of Michigan’s admissions policies were allowed by distinguishing a “race-conscious” from “race quotas.” 

We can read opposition to affirmative action as not simply based on racism, but sometimes on the desire to uphold a certain amount of individualism, to recognize that race is not always determinant in the same way for everyone.

The most significant driver of these arguments was, ostensibly, the protection of individual rights. No applicant, white or non-white, should be reduced to their race. The latest ruling allows a new loophole, but one that is also based on the ideal of individualism: Race can be taken into account only if applicants themselves discuss their race in their admissions materials.

In a Pew Poll taken earlier this year, 50% of respondents opposed colleges considering race or ethnicity in admissions. This was not just among whites: 29% of Black people disapproved, as did 39% of Latinx people, 52% of English-speaking Asian Americans, and 57% of whites. In a CBS News poll in June, 70% said colleges should not be allowed to consider race — but 53% said affirmative-action programs should be continued.

It sounds like common sense that no policy should reduce anyone to their race, ethnicity or gender, presumptively assuming it to be the explanation of all their successes and all their failures. For Thomas, the stigma inflicted on recipients of affirmative action of being reduced to one’s race undermines its power to help undo racist prejudices. (Strangely enough, affirmative-action critics like Thomas never talk about the stigma experienced by the children of the super-rich who are the beneficiaries of legacy admissions, a pay-to-play practice common at many prestigious private universities.)

Thus, we can read opposition to affirmative action as not simply based on racism, but sometimes on the desire to uphold a certain amount of individualism, to recognize that race is not always determinant in the same way for everyone. The Supreme Court ruling may look nicely aligned with these latter sentiments, because by disallowing quotas and only permitting considerations of race alluded to by applicants themselves, it limits outsiders’ ability to decide how significant race is in our lives. 

How can we address structural forms of injustice while upholding individualism? Stigmatization of the recipients of affirmative action is not produced out of thin air, but in a climate clogged with all sorts of racism and sexism. 

Racial remedies come in two broad categories: Backward-looking remedies seek to repair past injustice, while forward-looking ones focus on changing the future. Affirmative action was initially put forward in the 1960s as a way to repair the crimes of Jim Crow, but it has come to be defended more often in the courts and among policy analysts as a forward-looking project. In this light, the discomfort experienced by the first generation of female airline pilots, Black judges, Asian-American English professors and Latinx professionals is supposed to be a service rendered to create progress about how people think about who can do what. 

The hope is that the next generation won’t experience as much stigma. However, this assumes that the abilities of the first “non-traditional” hires will shine through the stigma, allay the skepticism, and shrivel the old ideas with the force of our simple but obvious functionality. Alas, if it were only so. 

Despite the persistence of racism, forward-looking justifications for affirmative action still stand as a means to an end. There is no question that seeing a diverse pool of people in every field has given millions of people experiences that contest old ideologies. Plus, it has improved many lives. 

I think there are two critical lessons we should take from the current ruling. 

The first is that institutions need to step up. There are many legal policies we can use to redress the structural injustices of both race and class. One is what the California State University system does with “educational equity” provisions that seek to neutralize the effect of zip codes on admissions. Another is the program in my home state of Florida (believe it or not) in which high-school students with B averages or above can go to state colleges and universities tuition-free. 

The second lesson is especially pertinent to the most recent Court ruling, which used some Asian-American plaintiffs to argue that affirmative action discriminated against them. They claimed that basing admissions on standardized tests would make racism a thing of the past, since admissions would then be based on pure merit. Some universities used quotas to set a maximum number of Asian-American and, in the past, Jewish acceptances, to ensure that, despite their high test scores, they would not ‘replace’ too many Gentile whites. 

Lots of empirical evidence now shows the problem of relying on standardized tests. Their power to predict students’ success is negligible beyond the first year of college. While relying on them would eliminate the racism of maximum-number quotas, it would firm up the fences that exclude Black and Brown applicants, who test poorly by comparison to others regardless of their social class

Here is the lesson: Since racism does not take unified forms, its solutions cannot be generic. Only a rich knowledge of the specific and variable forms racism uses to clog our thinking will lead to effective pathways forward. Let’s start planning the trip. 

Linda Martín Alcoff is a professor of philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center and Hunter College. She is the author of The Future of Whiteness and Visible Identities: Race, Gender and Self.

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