Curtailing Affirmative Action Is a Blow Against a Rising Generation (2023)


The gap between a more diverse America and less diverse elite colleges will only grow.

ByRonald Brownstein

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With today’s decision curtailing affirmative action in higher education, the Supreme Court has landed another powerful blow for older white America in its struggle against the kaleidoscopically diverse and more populous younger generations for control of the nation’s direction.

The ruling by the Court’s six Republican-appointed justices prevents higher-education institutions from considering race in admissions precisely as kids of color, for the first time, comprise a majority of the nation’s high-school graduates. Against that backdrop, the decision could widen the mismatch between a youth population that is rapidly diversifying and a student body that is likely to remain preponderantly white in the elite colleges and universities that serve as the pipeline for leadership in the public and private sectors. That seems a formula guaranteed to heighten social tension.

“Education is the system that has the most powerful effect on reproducing race, class, and gender differences across generations,” Anthony Carnevale, the director of the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, told me. Banning affirmative action will mean that “the people who govern us, the elites in American society, will increasingly not look like America.”

In the broadest sense, the Republican-appointed justices have moved to buttress the affluence and status that allow white people to wield the most influence in society, and to diminish the possibility that accelerating demographic change will force a renegotiation of that balance of power. In that way, the ruling is a judicial extensionof the proliferating red-state lawsmeant to constrain the potential influence of younger generations through measures making it more difficult to vote, banning books, and censoring how teachers talk about race and gender inequities.

All of these conflicts reflect the mounting tension betweenwhat I’ve called the brown and the gray: the racially and culturally diverse younger generations who are becoming the cornerstone of the Democratic political coalition, and the mostly white older generations who provide the foundation of Republican electoral strength.

“The attack on affirmative action is part of the larger, conservative extremist attack on young people and future generations of Americans who are more progressive, open-minded, racially and ethnically diverse, and inclusive than the waning demographic of the electorate,” Janai Nelson, the president and director-counsel of the Legal Defense Fund, told me in an email.

Affirmative action in education, employment, and government contracting has always been an imperfect tool to promote racial equality. It has prompted ambivalence even among many of its beneficiaries, who have been confronted with questions about whether they “deserved” their place in classrooms or on worksites. Skeptics see it as a violation of traditional notions of merit and fairness. Opposition to affirmative action in education has been most intense among white and Asian American voters,but it has also faced resistance in pollsfrom substantial numbers of Latinos and a measurable minority of African Americans. Even in liberal-leaning California, a ballot initiative to ban consideration of race in college admissions passed easily in 1996. A measure to repeal the ban failed by an even larger margin in 2020.

But, for all its limitations, affirmative action has proved crucial for maintaining any alignment between the diversifying youth population and the student body at the most elite educational institutions. Even with affirmative action, experts note, the racial makeup of the most selective schools has not kept pace. “There has been no serious attempt to achieve diversity commensurate with the high-school class in America,” Carnevale said. “That’s just not the game that we play.”

Growing diversity in the nation’s youth population is, as Carnevale put it, a “runaway train.” Whereas about three-fourths of Baby Boomers and older generations are white, kids of color comprise about 45 percent of Millennials, almost exactly half of Generation Z, and an absolute majority of the youngest Americans born since 2012 (generally considered the cutoff for Gen Z),according to calculations by William Frey, a demographer at Brookings Metro.

In 2014, for the first time, kids of color constituted a majority of public-school K–12 students. The National Center for Educational Statisticsestimatesthat kids of color became a majority of all high-school graduates for the first time last year; the center projects that by the end of this decade, minority kids will comprise about 57 percent of all high-school graduates. As recently as around 2000, about seven of every 10 graduates still were white.

This profound transformation is inevitably reshaping the entering class of college students. Kids of color have grown from about a fourth of the entering class for colleges and universities nationwide in 1995 to nearly two-fifths in 2009 to almost half today. But, as Carnevale notes, even with many institutions using some form of affirmative action, white kids remain overrepresented, and Black and Latino kids in particular remain substantially underrepresented at the most exclusive institutions.

In 2021, Black and Latino students combined accounted for only a little over a fifth of the entering class at the public and private colleges rated the most selective byBarron’smagazine, according to new data from the Georgetown Center provided exclusively toThe Atlantic. Asian American students accounted for about another one in eight of their students. White students, though now down to only about half of all incoming students, still filled about three-fifths of the seats in the entering class of the most elite institutions, the center found.

The Black and Latino share of the entering class steadily rises in the institutions that are less selective. They accounted for about a third of the incoming class at the public and private schools in the middle tier of selectivity, and almost 45 percent of the entering class at the least-selective “open access” schools.

Taken together, these patterns leave big majorities of Black, Latino, and Native American first-year students attending the least-selective schools—about three-fifths of Black students, and two-thirds of Latino and Native American students. By contrast, well below half of all white and Asian American students attend these schools.

This distribution matters in part because the most elite institutionsspend more than three times as much per studentas the open-access schools and generate much better outcomes on such key measures as college completion, graduate-school attainment, and lifetime earnings. And despite the claim that affirmative action “mismatches” kids of color into demanding institutions where they can’t succeed, Carnevale says the evidence is unmistakable that the greater investment of elite schools is especially beneficial in improving results for kids from low-income backgrounds. “The lower income you are, the more you gain from a selective college,” Carnevale told me. “In fact, the gains for minorities and low-income kids far exceed those for the usual white kids who go to a selective college.”

Harder to quantify, but perhaps even more profound, is the potential impact on the nation’s leadership class of further reducing the number of nonwhite students at the most prestigious colleges and universities. Joe Biden is the only president since 1988 who did not receive either an undergraduate or a graduate degree from an Ivy League school; all but one of the Supreme Court Justices (Amy Coney Barrett) graduated from law school at Harvard or Yale. “If opportunity is concentrated among certain racial groups and not equally open to others, that will necessarily create a caste system that is not sustainable in a functioning democracy,” Nelson, at the Legal Defense Fund, said.

Victor Shi, a UCLA student and strategy director at Voters of Tomorrow, a liberal-leaning group that tries to engage Gen Z in politics, says his contemporaries are already aware of how little their diversity is reflected in the nation’s public and private leadership. “That’s one of the biggest systemic issues: Are there enough people up there who represent people of color?” Shi told me. “Getting rid of affirmative action reemphasizes this outlook among Gen Z that our systems are broken.”

In a dissent written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the three Democratic-appointed Justices emphasized the likelihood that the majority’s ruling will dangerously widen the gap between a society that is changing rapidly and a leadership class that could remain disproportionately White. “The Court ignores the dangerous consequences of an America where its leadership does not reflect the diversity of the People,” Sotomayor wrote. “At its core, today’s decision exacerbates segregation and diminishes the inclusivity of our Nation’s institutions in service of superficial neutrality that promotes indifference to inequality and ignores the reality of race.

The experience in states that have ended affirmative action leaves little doubt that the Court’s decision will in fact further diminish the number of Black and Latino kids on elite campuses. In separate legal briefs, the state universities inCaliforniaandMichigan—two states where voters have banned affirmative action in higher education—recounted the extensive efforts they have had to make to preserve diversity without it.

These measures have included greatly increased outreach to inner-city schools, new scholarship programs for minority kids, deemphasizing standardized test scores, guaranteeing admission to some percentage of students with the best grades in every school, and providing more advantage in admission decisions to those who come from low-income backgrounds. Despite all these initiatives, the schools explained, they could not maintain racial diversity commensurate with the overall youth population. As the University of California concluded in its brief, “There remain stark differences between the demographics of UC’s enrolled student population … and California public high school graduates.” Michele Siqueiros, the president of the Campaign for College Affordability, a group that advocates for low-income and minority students in higher education, told me that with the Court barring affirmative action, the nation risks reverting “to the kind of segregation … that ensured that only white wealthy men could go to college in this country.” To avoid that fate, she says, advocates will need to more forcefully challenge every way the system tilts against low-income and minority applicants—perhaps most important among them legacy admissions that favor the children of alumni (who tend to be mostly white at selective schools).

Plenty of admissions practices like these undermine the idea that affirmative action represents a unique departure from the principle of impartial “merit,” Carnevale pointed out: “If you did college admissions [solely] by academic talent, half the people in the elite schools would have to leave.” Absent such a fundamental reassessment of admissions, the GOP-appointed Supreme Court justices have now made much more likely a future in which the most elite educational institutions remain mostly white (or even grow whiter) as society becomes more diverse. By all indications, that is a future likely to be welcomed bythe electoral coalitionthat placed those justices on the Court.

Across a wide range of issues—including ending the constitutional right to abortion, privileging claims of religious liberty over LGBTQ rights, restricting government regulation of firearms, and blocking federal efforts to confront climate change—the GOP-appointed majority is systematically ruling in ways that reflect the priorities of a predominantly white and Christian electoral coalition. The Court majority has rejected some of the most extreme and fringe legal theories popular in that coalition, particularly the so-called “independent state legislature doctrine” and challenges to the 2020 election outcome. But such decisions remain the exception. In its ruling against affirmative action, the Court majority has reifiedthe bedrock beliefof most Republican voters that bias against white people is now as big a problem as discrimination against minorities. Through these decisions and others, the Court has become a powerful weapon for a Republican coalition that is defining itself, especially in the Donald Trump era, in open oppositionto the demographic and cultural changesreshaping American life in the 21st century.

These rulings from this majority not only collide with the dominant views among Gen Z, but in many cases threatenthe intrinsic identityof a generation that is more racially diverse,more likely to identify as LGBTQ, andless likely to belong to any organized religionthan any in American history.

Americans born since 1980already represent a majority of the U.S. population, and by 2028 they almost certainly will becomethe biggest single bloc of the nation’s voters. Yet, with the two oldest of the conservative Justices only in their mid-70s, this Supreme Court majority could rule against Gen Z’s preferences for another decade or more. The choice to end affirmative action precisely as the nation’s youth population reaches unprecedented levels of diversity shows just how fiercely the gray may fight to avoid ceding power to the brown.


What are the disadvantages of affirmative action? ›

Perhaps the most tragic side effect of affirmative action is that very significant achievements of minority students can become compromised. It is often not possible to tell whether a given student genuinely deserved admission to Stanford, or whether he is there by virtue of fitting into some sort of diversity matrix.

What is the purpose of the affirmative action? ›

The purpose of affirmative action is to establish fair access to employment opportunities to create a workforce that is an accurate reflection of the demographics of the qualified available workforce in the relevant job market.

What is affirmative action quizlet? ›

Definition of Affirmative Action: -Steps taken to increase the representation of women and minorities in areas of employment, education, and business from which they have been historically excluded.

What is the concept of affirmative action? ›

Affirmative action is defined as a set of procedures designed to; eliminate unlawful discrimination among applicants, remedy the results of such prior discrimination, and prevent such discrimination in the future.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of affirmative action? ›

Many companies now employ affirmative action policies as part of their business models, but there are still some pros and cons to this practice.
  • Advantage: Diverse Workplace. ...
  • Disadvantage: Creates a Stigma. ...
  • Advantage: Attracts New Customer Base. ...
  • Disadvantage: Perception of Reverse Discrimination.
Feb 12, 2019

What are the effects of affirmative action programs? ›

Overall, affirmative action redistributes jobs and student slots towards minorities and females, though these effects are not very large. Minorities who benefit from affirmative action often have weaker credentials, but there is fairly little solid evidence that their labor market performance is weaker.

What are some examples of affirmative action? ›

Affirmative actions include training programs, outreach efforts, and other positive steps. These procedures should be incorporated into the company's written personnel policies. Employers with written affirmative action programs must implement them, keep them on file and update them annually.

What is one argument in favor of affirmative action? ›

In support of Affirmative Action

Affirmative Action is designed to end the discrimination of people based on race and nationality. It is a way to give non-whites an opportunity to have decent jobs and add to the diversity at any work place.

What is true of Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action? ›

The Supreme Court's landmark decision on Thursday to gut affirmative action has made it unlawful for colleges to take race into consideration as a specific factor in admissions.

What is the main argument against affirmative action quizlet? ›

An argument against affirmative action is: It is inconsistent with the principles of fairness and equality. One argument in favor of affirmative action is: It levels the playing field to correct past discriminatory hiring practices.

What has caused the Supreme Court to weaken affirmative action laws? ›

What has caused the Supreme Court to weaken affirmative action laws? The Court decided that affirmative action policies must survive strict scrutiny. Some affirmative action policies violated the Fourteenth Amendment.

Which of the following is the most plausible argument for affirmative action? ›

Of these four arguments, which of the following is the most plausible argument FOR affirmative action? It is necessary to break the cycle that keeps minorities and women locked into low-paying, low-prestige jobs.

What was the original purpose of affirmative action quizlet? ›

Explanation: The original approach to affirmative action in the 1960's was to create a "level playing field" where minorities (such as blacks and women) would be able to compete for jobs with white males.

What is the opposite of affirmative? ›

Antonyms: negative. expressing or consisting of a negation or refusal or denial. dissentient, dissenting, dissident. disagreeing, especially with a majority. unfavorable, unfavourable.

What does it mean to be affirmative? ›

: an expression (such as the word yes) of affirmation or assent. 2. : the side that upholds the proposition stated in a debate. 3. logic : an affirmative (see affirmative entry 1 sense 4) proposition.

What are the pros of affirmative? ›

Affirmative action allows colleges to use holistic reviews to consider race as one of many factors under evaluation when reviewing applicants. Therefore, affirmative action betters the chances of a student of color receiving fair, comprehensive consideration instead of being overlooked for admission.

What are the three types of affirmative action? ›

There are three different types of Affirmative Action Plans required of federal contractors, depending on contract size and number of employees:
  • Race & Gender Affirmative Action Plan. ...
  • Veterans Affirmative Action Plan. ...
  • Disability Affirmative Action Plan. ...
  • You don't have to fear an audit.

What are the benefits of affirmative action in policing? ›

Affirmative action provides some compensatory justice in that it applies to groups which have experienced employment discrimination in the past. It also provides some distributive justice, especially when one group is compared with another, and the full picture of past and present employment distribution is considered.

Which best describes the reasoning behind the practice of affirmative action? ›

Explanation: The affirmative action is providing compensation to people who have been discriminated or exploited or persecuted in past.

What are the benefits of positive discrimination? ›

Positive discrimination enables companies to hire and retain talent from minority groups. This can help to increase the diversity within the workforce.

How does affirmative action promote diversity? ›

Affirmative action plans (AAPs) define an employer's standard for proactively recruiting, hiring and promoting women, minorities, disabled individuals and veterans. Affirmative action is deemed a moral and social obligation to amend historical wrongs and eliminate the present effects of past discrimination.

What is the affirmative action plan for dummies? ›

An Affirmative Action Plan (AAP) is a tool, a written program in which an employer details the steps it has taken and will take to ensure the right of all persons to advance on the basis of merit and ability without regard to race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, genetic information, veteran's ...

Who must have an affirmative action plan? ›

You must develop an affirmative action program (AAP) if you have 50 or more employees and at least one contract of $50,000 or more, under Executive Order 11246 and Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

What is affirmative action an example of equality of? ›

This is aimed at giving equal opportunities to everybody. By doing so, the government plans to educate more and more people irrespective of their background. Universities often reach out to groups and some of them offer financial aid, give scholarships, or offer support programs to encourage students.

How many affirmative action students graduate? ›

Are There Alternatives to Affirmative Action and Do They Work?
School TypeAverage African American/Black Student Graduation RateAverage Black-to-White Student Graduation Gap
Top 12 Public Universities With Affirmative Action87.3%6%
Top 12 Public Universities Without Affirmative Action78%10.1%

Which statement would most likely be made by an opponent of affirmative action? ›

Which of the following arguments would most likely be made by an opponent of affirmative action policies? Affirmative action discriminates on the basis of race.

What are the two kinds of affirmative action? ›

What is an Affirmative Action Plan (AAP)? Two types of affirmative action plans are required — the AAP for Minorities and Females, which consists of statistical and narrative sections, and the AAP for Veterans and Individuals with Disabilities, which consists of a narrative section only.

Does affirmative action affect law school admissions? ›

Applicants may discuss their race in personal statements, but schools cannot make admissions decisions based on race, the majority ruled. In light of the ruling, Testy said law schools will need to take further steps to evaluate applicants' unique experiences along with their test scores and grades.

Which Supreme Court justices ruled against affirmative action? ›

Supreme Court justices who voted against affirmative action

Roberts' opinion was joined by Thomas, Samuel Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. The chief justice wrote that Harvard and UNC's race-based admission guidelines "cannot be reconciled with the guarantees of the Equal Protection Clause."

Has the Supreme Court upheld the use of affirmative action in higher education? ›

June 29 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday struck down race-conscious policies in college admissions, ending decades of precedent that had allowed schools nationwide to use such programs to increase the diversity of their student bodies.

Are there any disadvantages to cultural diversity? ›

Colleagues from some cultures may be less likely to let their voices be heard. Integration across multicultural teams can be difficult in the face of prejudice or negative cultural stereotypes. Professional communication can be misinterpreted or difficult to understand across languages and cultures.

What if affirmative action is banned? ›

The effects of banning affirmative action on school diversity. In states that have eliminated affirmative action, studies have consistently found declines in the admission and enrollment of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people. These declines are especially concentrated in selective and flagship institutions.

What is affirmative action most often criticized for? ›

Opponents have long charged that the programs discriminate against white males. Recent critics, including several noted black scholars, argue that preferential treatment programs victimize and stigmatize minorities, increasing friction among groups.

What are some negative outcomes of increasing diversity? ›

This can have positive effects for the workplace in terms of increased variety of knowledge, skills and experience. However, there can also be negative impacts of diversity in terms of reduced social cohesion, poor communication and increased conflict.

Is cultural diversity beneficial or harmful for society? ›

It helps dispel negative stereotypes and personal biases about different groups. In addition, cultural diversity helps us recognize and respect “ways of being” that are not necessarily our own. So that as we interact with others we can build bridges to trust, respect, and understanding across cultures.

What are the pros and cons of diversity? ›

  • Advantage: Better Financial Results. ...
  • Advantage: Global-Level Competition. ...
  • Advantage: Fact-Based Decision-Making. ...
  • Advantage: Creative and Innovative Thinking. ...
  • Advantage: Cross-Cultural Understanding. ...
  • Disadvantage: Difficulty in Transitioning. ...
  • Disadvantage: Short-Term Cost Outlay.

What states have gotten rid of affirmative action? ›

Nine states in the United States have banned race-based affirmative action: California (1996), Washington (1998, rescinded 2022), Florida (1999), Michigan (2006), Nebraska (2008), Arizona (2010), New Hampshire (2012), Oklahoma (2012), and Idaho (2020).

Is affirmative action banned in the US? ›

The Supreme Court's ban on affirmative action means colleges will struggle to meet goals of diversity and equal opportunity. After extensive deliberation, the Supreme Court has delivered a landmark ruling that effectively prohibits the use of race-based affirmative action in college admissions.

Will the Supreme Court strike down affirmative action? ›

On June 29, 2023, the United States Supreme Court issued a historic decision in Students for Fair Admissions, Inc.

Who has banned affirmative action? ›

In fact, 9 states have bans against race-based college admission policies: Idaho, Arizona, Florida, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Washington, California, and Michigan. Two of the largest colleges in the country filed briefs expressing support of affirmative action in this landmark case.

Which reason is the most accurate for the controversy surrounding affirmative action in the United States quizlet? ›

Which of the following is the most accurate reason for the controversy surrounding affirmative action in the United States? It sometimes leads to reverse discrimination against a majority.

What are three affirmative examples? ›

The Top 10 Examples of Affirmative Statements

I completely agree with you.” “That's 100% true.” “Certainly, you are right.” “Exactly, I couldn't agree more.”

Is affirmative action legal in higher education? ›

2003: Grutter v. Bollinger

The Court of Appeals referenced Bakke's case in the Supreme Court, citing the achievement of diversity by using affirmative action is actually legally binding on a federal level.


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