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The Future of Affirmative Action

The Future of Affirmative Action

Find out more on the future of affirmative action.

By Lauren Bayne Anderson

March 10, 2009

With the first black president elected and affirmative action programs now defeated in four states, some are wondering the fate of the programs and how they’ll be affected. 

The programs, designed to level the playing field for perceived minorities, have been under attack for years, most actively by anti-affirmative-action guru Ward Connerly.

In 2003, the Supreme Court affirmed the use of race in college admissions by a 5-4 vote. But public support of the programs has been flimsy, with four states now banning affirmative action programs.

And now, with Barack Obama elected as the nation’s first black president, justified or not, some are even more likely to view his election as proof that affirmative action is outdated and unneeded.

First set in place in 1961 by President Kennedy, affirmative action describes policies set in place to level the playing field for disadvantaged groups in education and employment. Historically, that’s meant racial minorities and women, but the physically disabled and veterans have also benefitted. 

This year Connerly pushed to get affirmative action bans on the ballots of four states, including a hotly contested vote in Colorado and Nebraska. Nebraska was the only state this year to approve the proposal, but it joins California, Michigan and Washington State, which have already banned the programs.

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But while the Supreme Court’s decision in support of affirmative action still stands, that could soon change too. Since the decision, Sandra Day O’Connor, the swing vote in favor of racial preferences has been replaced by the conservative Justice Samuel Alito.

According to The Atlantic, the new conservative majority, which last year struck down racial integration plans in public schools in Seattle and Louisville, may wish to revisit affirmative action in higher education.

The public’s reaction is still a mixed bag. In addition to the election of Obama, candidates Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton made history themselves as strong contenders for jobs traditionally held by men", adding to the perception that the policies may no longer be needed.

According to the Atlantic, in many academic circles, where Obama has strong multiracial support, the notion of colorblind policies is considered naive, even reactionary. But the Obama crowds in South Carolina memorably chanted “race doesn’t matter” after his victory there in the Democratic primary.

Obama himself has voiced his support for affirmative action programs. But some experts are offering other solutions to level the playing field.

According to a 2004 Century Foundation study by Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose, economic affirmative action— which takes into account the income, education and occupation of an applicant’s parents, in addition to the level of poverty in their high school— will produce nearly the same level of racial diversity as current race-based affirmative action, the Atlantic reported.

The Atlantic also suggested that Obama may choose to substantially fund the enforcement of important anti-discrimination laws to protect against bias in higher education, housing and employment, to reduce the need for other affirmative action programs—an agenda that no president has fully funded, they reported.


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