Conference: In Affirmative Action’s Defense, Supporters Urged To Focus on Economic Benefits

WASHINGTON, D.C. — When making the case for affirmative action, particularly in a potentially adversarial environment, emphasize the economic imperatives instead of just the social justice aspects of diversity and inclusion.

That’s one of the key points that Charles Batey, associate director for the Equal Opportunity Office at Metropolitan State College of Denver, says he got from the 38th National Conference and Annual Meeting of the American Association for Affirmative Action, or AAAA.

“Those of us that have been in this business for years have emphasized social justice,” said Batey, who also serves as a board member at AAAA, in an interview at the conclusion of the three-day conference, which drew some 160 individuals—mostly from higher education but also the private sector and government.

“When we are discussing affirmative action programs with persons that don’t believe in the plans and programs, we have a better chance of getting them to understand what we’re doing if we talk about business and economics,” Batey said.

“Higher education has a vital role because we produce the people power that companies need,” he continued. “If we don’t have the opportunity to produce individuals from diverse backgrounds for our employers, then we’re going to have some serious manpower-related issues.”

If there was any one message that resonated throughout the three-day conference, it was that America’s future economic well-being is directly tied to the educational success of the growing number of the country’s minority children.

Among the academics that stressed this point is Dr. William B. Harvey, dean of the School of Education at North Carolina A&T State University.

“I think it’s time for a reframing of the importance of affirmative action from a framework of social justice to one of human resource development,” Harvey said during a plenary panel titled simply as “Governance.”

Harvey also stressed the need for colleges and universities to play a more direct and meaningful role providing remedies to failures at the K-12 level instead of just lamenting the unpreparedness of students once they arrive in college or don’t pursue higher education.

“Those who are privileged enough to be in the academy who say the problem is K-12, I don’t think we can afford to continue that position,” Harvey said.

Harvey called on attendees to “consider very seriously” emulating an initiative at North Carolina A&T in which a high school has been established on campus to get more students from underrepresented groups prepared for college, particularly in STEM fields.

“We have to be more focused, more intentional, create new structures within the academy on campuses of colleges and universities to ensure greater participation and success of students of color,” Harvey said.

While opponents of affirmative action often cast the issue as one in which diversity is pitted against merit, that’s really a false choice, said Dr. Gregory M. Walton, assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University.

“People think diversity [comes] at the price of merit,” Walton said. “This perceived conflict becomes poignant and powerful in part because of the assumption that standard measures of merit are non-biased, that they reflect the ability and potential of students from different groups in similar ways.

“Research from my field—social psychology—shows that is simply not true,” he said.

Among other things, Walton said, minority students may not perform well on various tests because of “stereotype threat,” which he said causes many to worry inordinately about having their poor performance being used to confirm a negative stereotype about their particular group.

“Stereotype threat can undermine people’s performance in different settings,” Walton said. “Just taking a test that’s said to be a value of your ability can make people worry in the back of their mind. The effort to push the stereotype away makes people do less well than they would otherwise.”

Arguments such as Walton’s are among those that are expected to get greater attention as the U.S. Supreme Court revisits the use of race-conscious affirmative action later this year when it takes up Fisher v. University of Texas.

Batey, of Metropolitan State College, attended a workshop that dealt with the case and lawful ways to achieve diversity. The workshop title summed up what was on the minds of many attendees: “The Supreme Court Takes Fisher v. University of Texas: What Does This Portend for Affirmative Action in Higher Education.”

Batey said that, in addition to emphasizing the economic imperatives of diversity and inclusion, one of the takeaways he got from the workshop is how expedient it is to avoid using numerical goals when crafting affirmative action programs.

“We as affirmative action officers need to be reminded that we cannot come up with programs that in any way smack of quotas,” Batey said.

The AAAA conference concluded with an awards ceremony that recognized several champions of diversity.

Among those who were recognized was the late John A. Payton, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Payton, whose long and storied career included arguing Gratz v. Bollinger in the Supreme Court, was given the Arthur A Fletcher Lifetime Achievement Award. Payton’s wife, Gay McDougall, accepted the award on her late husband’s behalf.

Wade Henderson, president and CEO at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said Payton’s death left a void of experience that will be difficult to fill as the U.S. Supreme Court revisits the issue of race-conscious affirmative action in higher education.

“We are facing challenges today not unlike those that John confronted during the hey-day of his time,” Henderson said. “These challenges are difficult to overcome because of the void that he left.”

Also honored was Tim Wise, a prolific “anti-racist” writer who received AAAA’s Rosa Parks award.

In a rousing speech delivered in a style similar to that at a poetry slam, Wise said Whites in North America have long enjoyed affirmative action in the form of land grants, like the Headright system of colonial times, FHA loans that historically excluded minorities and other initiatives but that those things were never called affirmative action “because we don’t believe in honest history.”

Wise said the reason many Whites oppose affirmative action now is because it is being used to benefit minorities.

“Nary a White person in this country who at some level and many at several levels has not been a beneficiary of that thing,” Wise said of affirmative action, recounting various instances in which his own ancestors, from colonial times to the 20th century, have benefitted from policies and practices set up to benefit Whites exclusively. One instance, he said, was when his grandmother, who obtained a home through an FHA loan at a time when minorities were systematically excluded from it, used the home as collateral so that Wise could get a loan that enabled him to attend Tulane University.

“If not for the legacy and history of preferential treatment given to me—directly or indirectly through my family,” Wise said, “I would not be here today.”