Conference: Is the Defense of Affirmative Action Lacking Urgency?

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Although race-conscious affirmative action in higher education faces a “clear and present danger,” a case testing the use of race  hasn’t prompted the same sense of urgency as the last time the issue came before the U.S. Supreme Court.

So lamented Dr. Gary Orfield, co-director of The Civil Rights Project at UCLA, in a brief speech he gave here Thursday at the 38th National Conference and Annual Meeting of the American Association for Affirmative Action, or AAAA.

“We’re talking about a fundamental risk for a tool that we have no effective alternative for in a society that has really a deepening of inequalities in college completion levels,” Orfield said during a luncheon panel that focused on education.

“People like your organization need to explain to the [Supreme Court] justices who don’t have any personal experience with this but will have the position of looking at one college at one year and outlawing a whole system of equity for American higher education,” Orfield said, referring to the case known as Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin.

Through the case, brought by a White student denied a spot at the University of Texas’ flagship campus, the Supreme Court is expected to decide whether its prior decisions permit the university to use race as a factor in undergraduate admissions decisions.

Orfield said the Civil Rights Project at UCLA was working on its own brief in the case and exhorted other concerned parties to do likewise.

“This isn’t a theoretical issue,” Orfield said. “It’s really a clear and present danger.”

While Orfield lamented what he saw as a lack of urgency that he said existed leading up to the 2003 University of Michigan Law School case, which affirmed the Law School’s “narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions,” one affirmative action opponent says support for the policy has dropped considerably over the past decade.

“There’s no sense of urgency because an increasing number of people on campuses recognize that affirmative action, as currently practiced, is not improving campus life and often harms those who supposedly benefit from it,” said Jane S. Shaw, president at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

Among other things, Shaw said evidence that campus diversity improves learning is “extremely thin,” and that students admitted to college through affirmative action are “sometimes stigmatized because they had an easier ride in the admissions process and thus are less likely to have the motivation and preparation of other students.”

Such views were largely absent at the AAAA conference, where Orfield was one of several speakers who trained their focus on what they described as unequal access and completion rates in higher education among the growing population of ethnic minorities in the United States.

Keynote speaker Dr. Julianne Malveaux, newly-retired president at Bennett College for women, said the lack of access and low levels of completion among minorities in higher education is “imperiling our economy and our future.”

Malveaux said the overarching issue is not affirmative action, but rather a matter of targeting resources where they are needed — among African-Americans and Latinos, whom she said are, on average, younger than Whites in the U.S. and thus expected to replace Whites who are retiring from America’s workforce.

“So what you see in the labor market is White people retiring, people of color coming in, and then you see our failure to prepare people of color,” Malveaux said. “We need to be targeting young African-Americans and Latinos.

“What happens to our economy if we don’t? What will our labor force look like and how can we compete if these young people are not college graduates?

“Our future depends on what way that we look at higher education,” Malveaux said. “I’m fearful for a nation that can’t deal with the stubborn fact that the nation is changing.”

Malveaux said young minority students drop out of college primarily because of lack of finance and lack of ability, both of which she said are borne through racial disparities.

For instance, Malveaux said many inner city schools lack IB, AP and other college prep-type programs that are more common in predominantly White school districts.

“Many people will say we can’t fix all of education,” Malveaux said. “Guess what? We can fix most of it.”

She noted that of the approximately 38,000 or so zip codes in the United States, 75 percent of African-Americans and Latinos are located in about 2,500 and 2,300 of them, respectively.

“Let’s say we overlap those zip codes,” Malveaux said. “Instead of saying let’s fix education, let’s fix education in those zip codes.”

The AAAA conference featured a number of workshops on various legal aspects of diversity.

One such workshop was led by Weldon Latham, Senior Partner, Jackson Lewis LLP, who gave an insider’s perspective on what prompted some of America’s top companies to recognize that it was in their best interests to promote diversity.

Among other things, Latham said, companies often don’t see the value of diversity until they are hit with a race or discrimination lawsuit, or until their corporate image is tarnished and it affects their bottom line with a drop in sales or stock prices.

He also pointed out how reducing turnover among minorities and women due to a hostile work environment is something that can save companies millions of dollars.

Having a diverse work environment also helps recruit the best talent, Latham said, pointing out that 75 percent of new hires in 2012 are expected to be minorities and women.

“That’s where the future workforce is coming from,” Latham said.