Affirmative Action: Dissecting Rhetoric from Reality

The attack on equality of education

Marc H. Morial | 8/22/2017, 4 a.m.
According to a leaked memo, the Department of Justice is planning to redirect resources from its civil rights division to ...

In a perfect America founded and operating on colorblind meritocracy, admission to selective institutions of higher learning, boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies and access to federal contracts would be determined solely by ability, skill and talent, never having to take into consideration race or gender—and certainly never having to take into consideration a moral, national imperative to redress wrongs rooted in a long history of slavery, sexism, structural racism and prejudice. But as we all know, that is not the America we call home.

We live in an America that has (at some points more fervently than others), perpetually strived for the elusive ideals of freedom, liberty and justice—for all.

But as we collectively labor through the mud of inequality and the residue of injustice that disproportionately effects communities of color and women, it is at best cynical and at worst callous that the very federal agency charged with addressing the impact of discrimination on historically disadvantaged groups is now, under the direction of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, preparing to attack those laws, policies and guidelines set in place to end and correct the effects of a discrimination and “improve the employment or educational opportunities of members of minority groups and women.”

According to a leaked memo, the Department of Justice is planning to redirect resources from its civil rights division to investigate and sue universities that use “intentional race-based discrimination” in their admissions process because of its purported negative effects on Asian-American applicants. But let’s be clear, this is an attack on equality and education for marginalized groups.

This brazen, transparent, counterproductive assault on affirmative action, coupled with other proposed initiatives, would seal the door of opportunity shut for millions of Americans. The Trump administration has proposed slashing the Department of Education’s funding by over $9 billion; withholding much needed federal money from high-poverty public schools; and reducing funding for federal work-study and Pell Grants, making it harder for lower income and Black and Hispanic students to afford higher education.

In a nation where education is the most effective tool most of us have to climb the American ladder of success, and is practically synonymous with opportunity and achievement, the executive branch of our government appears driven to keep those who can least afford it away from a quality education at all phases of schooling.


Marc H. Morial, CEO of the National Urban League, the nation's largest civil rights organization.

There are a lot of myths out there about affirmative action. The most prevalent one—the one that fires up the aggrieved Trump base—is that hordes of Black and Brown applicants are taking away opportunities rightfully earned by better-qualified white applicants. The truth is, according to the latest data, the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action have been white women. And though the administration insists it is motivated by a sense of fairness, no attention is being paid to the growing advantage socioeconomic and legacy status play in college admissions.

Like race or gender, many selective universities consider an applicant’s legacy status as a factor in the admissions process, which puts students from marginalized, low-income and underrepresented communities at a distinct disadvantage. A 2011 Chronicle of Higher Education study found that a legacy connection gave an applicant a 23.3 percentage point advantage over a non-legacy applicant. And applicants whose parent attended the school gained an average advantage close to 50 percentage points.

That our universities and workplaces review candidates through a race- and/or gender-conscious lens is an acknowledgement of the outsized role racism and sexism currently plays and has historically played in our nation’s history. The Supreme Court has ruled—time and again—that schools, in particular, have the right and “compelling interest” to use race in a limited way to achieve a diverse student body. The goal is not to disadvantage any group, but to recognize and attempt to remedy centuries of injustice.

The National Urban League unequivocally condemns any effort by the Department of Justice to undermine the still necessary role of affirmative action in college admissions, taking us back to a time when African Americans, women and other marginalized groups did not have equal and fair access to higher education or employment.

I look forward to the day when a man or woman will neither be preferred nor penalized based on gender, color or socioeconomic class. Perhaps affirmative action, as a lasting solution, is complex and imperfect, but so is the nation we call home.

Marc H. Morial is president and chief executive officer of the National Urban League.