Affirmative action is under attack

The U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to hear two cases, one against Harvard and the other against the University of North Carolina. Filed by the conservative activist group Students for Fair Admissions, the cases challenge the legality of affirmative action, which allows colleges and universities to consider racial disparities — along with other identity-based factors — as part of admissions.

The benefits of affirmative action are embedded both in established legal precedence and social science research. Notably, Brown v. Board of Education (1954) held that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Although racial quotas were invalidated by the Supreme Court in Grutter v. Bollinger, there are now ongoing efforts to block affirmative action entirely.


In 2012, the Supreme Court heard the case of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin and ruled that strict scrutiny had to be applied to admission programs that consider race and that the lower courts had not applied these measures.

In 2014, the Supreme Court in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action upheld a ban against affirmative action in Michigan public universities, making similar bans legal in other states. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the court’s first Latina justice, read a powerful 15-minute dissent about the impact of the ruling. These decisions greatly undermined race-based affirmative action in higher education.

I am a proud product of the invigorated affirmative action programs of the late 1980s. After attending a segregated, under-resourced, inner-city public school system, I attended some of the country’s top universities.

Now, as an associate dean at DePaul University, my focus is on how to repair the institutional faults and address the psychological damage done to students of color across the country by the lingering effects of segregation and inequality.

Like many students of color who are often the first in their families to attend college, I heard claims that affirmative action meant that we were being given something that we had not necessarily earned.

Given that there’s so many people questioning their right to be at an institution, it’s not hard to see why students from backgrounds like my own feel out of place.

Higher education administrators and policies must champion continued investment in supporting faculty and staff of color who are traditionally responsible for the heavy lifting in diversity work at institutions.

It also requires a robust commitment to financial aid and accessibility.

With administrators’ support, educators can lead students through courageous dialogues and intentional anti-racist initiatives. This requires the involvement of the groups most directly impacted by long legacies of exclusion and marginalization.

While the legality of affirmative action has withstood the test of times, the current political climate puts practice more at risk than ever before.

Universities must boldly defend the hard-fought right to affirmative action so they can continue to play a positive role in a society and world that needs change.

Dr. Jacqueline Lazú is an associate professor in the department of modern languages, affiliated faculty member of the Department of Criminology, and an associate dean at DePaul University.

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