This November, voters in Oklahoma will consider a ballot measure banning affirmative action in public-sector hiring. And in October, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in the Fisher v. University of Texas case – centered on the use of affirmative action in public-university admissions. As the second installment in our One Minute Debate series for election 2012, three writers give their brief take on whether the United States still needs affirmative action.
The 'yes' case is argued by Courtney Bowie, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberty Union's Racial Justice Program. The 'no' position is taken by Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, and Joshua Thompson, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation. And 'a middle way' is suggested by Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation.
This fall, affirmative action will be on the Oklahoma state ballot, and the Supreme Court will hear the case Fisher v. University of Texas, in which the plaintiff claims the use of race as one factor for admissions is unfair to white applicants. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a brief supporting the university. With America's history of racial discrimination and persistent inequities, it is dishonest to argue that a system that ignores race is somehow race-neutral.
While we strive for a race-neutral world, we live in one in which most institutions – schools, boardrooms, neighborhoods – have a largely homogenous racial identity. Without affirmative policies to address the past and current injustices that cause and perpetuate this segregation, the situation will not change. Eliminating these inequalities will take time and require a ground-up transition, of which affirmative action is but one element.
If the plaintiffs prevail in their quest for race neutrality, and America does not proactively address and eliminate the current racial disparities, this inequality will simply be perpetuated.
In 1996, California and, for approximately seven years beginning in 1997, Texas discontinued the use of race as a factor in public university admissions. Their universities again became predominantly white, largely depriving all students of the benefit of diversity. But universities must be allowed to consider race as a factor in admissions because having diversity at these institutions is a compelling state interest.
A nation that creates equal opportunities for all citizens is stronger, more tolerant, and more productive. America also needs diverse leaders, and affirmative action ensures these leaders have a chance to emerge – by cultivating them in classrooms, workplaces, and beyond.
We cannot have race-neutral admission and employment policies because, unfortunately, America is not yet a race-neutral society.
Courtney Bowie is a senior staff attorney with the ACLU's Racial Justice Program. Before joining the ACLU, Ms. Bowie was an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center.
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