Affirmative Action



As the Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of affirmative action in the area of higher education admissions, join Active Minds for an in-depth look at the origins, history, and future of affirmative action in the United States. Born out of the legacy of slavery in the U.S., affirmative action has been a part of our culture for decades. Proponents claim it is necessary to even the playing field given past disadvantages while others argue that it just creates a new uneven playing field. We will examine both these arguments and more as we attempt to understand this complicated and important issue.

Key Lecture Points

  • The term “affirmative action” refers to programs that use racial or gender preferences to provide equal opportunity in education and the workplace.
  • Beginning during WWII, affirmative action was intended to address the barriers historically faced by Black Americans starting with the post-Reconstruction Jim Crow era and were later expanded to address historic discrimination based on gender and other protected categories.
  • Executive Orders and legislation in the 1960s and 70s were enacted to establish programs to address these historic wrongs.  Beginning in the late 1970s, however, the Supreme Court began to critically examine these actions, struggling with the concept that government might favor certain people over others to address past discrimination. In 2003 the Grutter v. Bollinger case was heard by the US Supreme Court.  This landmark decision allows public universities to include racial preferences as part of a “holistic” review of a student’s application for admission but rejected the use of numeric quotas.
  • The 1990s saw a series of state referenda to end racial preferences in college admissions.  Many of those states replaced use of race in the admissions process with programs whereby a percentage of high performing students, regardless of what part of the state they are from, would automatically be admitted to state universities.  In so doing, those states saw that they could still achieve diversity. Critics of these programs suggest that these programs act as proxies for racial preferencing.
  • The US Supreme Court heard the arguments for cases brought by an organization called Students for Fair Admissions in October 2022.  This case revisits affirmative action programs in which applicants receive racial preferences as part of a holistic review. From the questions asked during the hearing, observers believe the conservative Justices are ready to impose new limits on the use of race in making college admission decisions and the liberal Justices are concerned that the court’s previous upholding of the use of racial preferences will be overturned.  A decision is expected by late June 2023.
  • Regardless of the decision, those universities and other institutions that believe that diversity is important to the value of their product continue to explore how best to promote diversity without running afoul of the Supreme Court’s decisions.

Discussion Questions

  • What are the major Supreme Court decisions that have shaped how affirmative action is currently used in college admissions?
  • Do you think affirmative action should be continued?  Why or why not?
  • Have you or anyone in your family benefitted from an affirmative action program?  What did it mean to your family?

More to Explore

  • Transcript of 2023 Supreme Court case Click here
  • US Dept of Education Guidance on Voluntary Use of Race to Achieve Diversity Click here

Books for Further Reading

  • Toobin, Jeffrey.  The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court. Anchor, 2008. 480 pages.  The author explores the history of the Supreme Court and the current dynamics among the Justices.
    Click here to order
  • Stevens, John Paul.  Five Chiefs: A Supreme Court Memoir. Back Bay Books, 2012. 304 pages. A personal account of how the Supreme Court works and insights on controversial cases.
    Click here to order
  • Sander, Richard and Stuart Taylor, Jr.  Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, And Why Universities Won’t Admit It. Basic Books, 2012. 368 pages. An analysis of affirmative action in higher education.
    Click here to order