Examining the Justifiability of Affirmative Action Policies for Blacks in Higher Education


Examining the Justifiability of Affirmative Action Policies for Blacks in Higher Education

Cheyenne Desrosiers
Published by the PIT Journal: 


Affirmative action policies have been highly controversial for decades due to their focus on race-conscious admissions. The purpose of this paper is to explore the justification of these policies in terms of blacks in higher education and understand if the policies are justifiable and to what extent. The article delves into several of the main arguments surrounding the justification of affirmative action, such as reverse racism, white privilege, historical segregation, and economic inequality, to determine if the policies are carrying out their intent in lessening the education gap and inequalities between while and black students.


“You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”

-- Lyndon B. Johnson, June 1965 speech at Howard University


According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the term “affirmative action” refers to “positive steps taken to increase the representation of women and minorities in areas of employment, education, and culture from which they have been historically excluded” (Fullinwider 1). While affirmative action applies to several groups that have historically been disadvantaged, this paper will focus on the underrepresentation of black people in higher education due to the deeply-ingrained history of discrimination against blacks in America. After 400 years of this continued discrimination, affirmative action was created as a method of redressing past wrongs against them. Its goals include increasing diversity in institutions of higher education, creating a more equal society in terms of access to opportunity, and lessening the prevalent education gap between different races by allowing the consideration of race in university admissions. Since it was created by Kennedy’s executive order in 1961, affirmative action has been both praised and criticized, with the question of its justification left unanswered. Determining affirmative action’s justifiability is crucial in understanding whether or not the policy is an effective tool for mitigating the effects of historical inequalities. We must be sure that affirmative action is a fair, balanced, and non-discriminatory way to target these inequalities to promote a more equal society. Despite arguments made against the legitimacy of affirmative action, its justification is proven in its ability to carry out its purpose: lessening the education gap, increasing diversity in institutions of higher education, and providing greater opportunity to black people where it has previously been lacking. The question of affirmative action’s justifiability will be explored in this paper by examining why affirmative action exists, the critical debate surrounding the policies, and areas where it is still needed.

Before we can understand whether or not affirmative action is justified, we first need to understand one of the biggest issues that affirmative action strives to address – the education gap. Currently, the education gap that exists between black and white students is a result of various factors including discriminatory policies, economic inequality, and a lack of opportunity for blacks outside of school. In Unequal Opportunity: Race and Education, Linda Darling-Hammond, the Professor of Education Emeritus at Stanford University, points out a flaw in a popular assumption about the education system. While many believe that black students’ lower achievement is due to their lack of effort or capabilities, Darling-Hammond brings attention to the inherently unequal educational experience that black and white students receive (2). White students are typically of a higher socioeconomic class than black students, which means that schools in predominantly white areas are better funded, with “spending ratios of 3 to 1 [being] common within states” (Darling-Hammond 3). In other words, black students have inferior and unequal educational opportunities because their schools are underfunded, resulting in a poor curriculum and little training for teachers (Darling-Hammond 9). Approximately two-thirds of minority students attend institutions mainly composed of other minority students from lower-income communities, and continue to be disadvantaged due to historically discriminatory policies that separated white education from minority education (Darling-Hammond 5).

The lack of funding and resource allocation to these low-income schools is a result of policies such as the historical Plessy versus Ferguson, “separate but equal,” doctrine. In this doctrine, the separation of the races resulted in many black schools receiving significantly fewer resources than white schools. In combination with other inequalities, black students were not able to receive the same quality of education as white students, and this trend has continued since then. Across the United States, “recent analyses of data prepared for school finance cases in Alabama, New Jersey, New York, Louisiana, and Texas have found that on every tangible measure… schools serving greater numbers of students of color had significantly fewer resources than schools serving mostly white students” (Darling-Hammond 5). In other words, black students were severely disadvantaged in their education because they were deprived of resources that led to success and greater achievement for white students. The effects of this discriminatory system are evident today where black students have a more difficult time getting into universities, not because they are incapable, but because they have insufficient resources to thrive. Many black students cannot afford private tutors or standardized exam preparation courses, and they don’t have access to college graduates to guide them through the college application process. Affirmative action policies are in place so that universities consider the disproportionate opportunities offered to black versus white students, and admit students based on the context of their situations.

In order to determine the justifiability of affirmative action policies, it is important to first understand the critical debate that surrounds this issue. Vann R. Newkirk II, previously a policy analyst at the Kaiser Family Foundation, currently a journalist who writes for The Atlantic specializing in politics and policy, implies that affirmative action is justified as he contextualizes the modern debate about affirmative action. He effectively supports his claim that affirmative action is not a problem, but rather an important policy that is necessary to address the prevalent education gap created by past discrimination against black people (2). The education gap has resulted in lower achievement among black students and, as a result, a lower number of black students in higher education institutions. However, “data suggest that race-conscious admissions policies are the main factors keeping overall enrollment roughly representative of America’s racial demographics,” which show blacks as a far greater percentage of the population than the actual numbers on college campuses (Newkirk 15). Since this type of race-conscious policy allows admission officers to see deeper into black students’ situations and how they are taking advantage of the resources they actually have, affirmative action is actively minimizing the effects of the achievement gap and diversifying university populations. Overall, a more equitable education system is being created as this type of understanding is encouraged in admission standards.

Dr. Liz Jackson, an Associate Professor of Education at the University of Hong Kong, agrees with Newkirk that affirmative action promotes diversity in education, but she implies that it is not justified because it does not do enough to help the disadvantaged. Because affirmative action policies are not enforced nationally – several states have banned the use of race-conscious policies – Jackson recommends focusing on redefining merit standards and “political and legal historical and contemporary practices of zoning schools” (Jackson 392). Despite Jackson’s critiques of affirmative action, she does find the policies to have great benefits to students in higher education institutions:

"Increased diversity among this group [blacks] is seen to provide society as a whole with a number of goods. For instance, a variety of perspectives and experiences in close proximity can lead to new insights and a better educational experience for all students, as well as facilitate more peaceful interactions (and thus greater social stability) stemming from better mutual understanding across lines of difference. (Jackson 384)"

Jackson believes that students will learn from each other and from the diverse environment, and a greater understanding will be fostered among them. Therefore, even though Jackson believes affirmative action’s full potential has not been reached and there is an alternative to it, the benefits of diversity, which affirmative action promotes, are clear.

A middle ground viewpoint between Jackson and Newkirk is offered by Erin E. Byrnes, a lawyer with expertise in education law, who suggests that affirmative action is justified, but that there is room for improvement with affirmative action policies. Specifically, Byrnes mentions that people’s perception of the policies needs to be altered in order to make affirmative action more widely supported and, thereby, effective, a different take on Jackson’s similar argument. For example, Byrnes points out that some people believe “our generation is innocent of the sins of the past” and that racism does not play a role in today’s problems (553). Byrnes argues that this perception needs to change, that everyone needs to realize that racism is not a thing of the past, and that white people need to acknowledge their privilege and support affirmative action so that black people may gain access to opportunities (554). Otherwise, affirmative action will always find itself opposed for reasons that cannot be logically supported, yet will still hinder affirmative action’s capability to achieve its purpose.

Ebony M. Zamani-Gallagher, a Professor of Higher Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and her colleagues, Denise O’Neil Green, M.Christopher Brown, and David Stovall, distinguished education policy professors and university presidents, all hold a view of affirmative action policies that build upon Byrnes’ arguments. In The Case for Affirmative Action on Campus: Concepts of Equity, Considerations for Practice, the main claim is that affirmative action is necessary in our current society to address past wrongs against people of color, as well as to make a more equitable education system. The authors claim that this should be done by changing how people speak about affirmative action and by finding more ways and strategies to allow diverse campuses to flourish. It is claimed that “when policy makers ignore the existence of race/ethnicity in their language and ideas, their de facto enforcement continues to disadvantage people of color” because the system already favors white people (Zamani-Gallaher et al. 32). By paying attention to race/ethnicity in policy, policymakers will better be able to meet the needs of minority groups, including black people, and create a more equitable system. Affirmative action is important because “ideologically, affirmative action disturbs the privilege of Whiteness… it challenges an institution that influences what groups have traditionally been given rights and power, and what groups have legally and socially suffered oppression, restricting and limiting their opportunities” (Zamani-Gallaher et al. 45). Again, this reinforces the point that by ignoring race and ethnicity, policymakers are essentially ignoring those minority groups that do not typically have much representation in the government. This lack of representation translates to the education system as well. Without a focus on race and ethnicity in higher education institutions, it becomes difficult for these students to gain the necessary opportunities to go to university and gain representation due to the inequalities in the United States’ education system. Representation is necessary because white privilege stands in the way of progress because it is “the pervasive, structural, and generally invisible assumption that white people define a norm and Black people are ‘other,’ dangerous, and inferior” (Law 624). Since white people are often unaffected by the various issues that have led to unequal education, they do not have to think about it on a daily basis, so little to no action is taken to remedy the system’s inequalities.

Ultimately, the arguments against affirmative action’s continuation pale in comparison to affirmative action’s many advantages. While many argue against affirmative action’s justification and claim that it does not do enough to help the disadvantaged or that its perception is harming its capacity to enact positive change, the reality is that affirmative action is efficiently making opportunities available to black students without discriminating against others, specifically white students. Newkirk and Law both delve deeply into why affirmative action, despite its criticisms, is justified. In his assessments of affirmative action, Newkirk finds that the overall debate has a focus on racial tensions, and he explains the manifestation of the term “reverse racism” in relation to the policies (2). “Reverse racism” is a commonly cited critique of affirmative action, which Newkirk finds problematic because a large portion of the American public believes that this supposed ‘discrimination’ against whites is equivalent, in scope and in urgency, to the issue of discrimination against blacks (10). He mocks the usage of “reverse racism” as a counterargument to affirmative action, stating that people believe “black people were the favored children of the state, and deserving white people were cast aside” (Newkirk 7). Essentially, he debunks the argument that affirmative action gives black students preferential treatment with evidence of white students making up most of private scholarship recipients, despite making up only 62% of the college student population; clearly, white students are favored in this situation, given that the most economically disadvantaged tend to be minority students, including blacks (Newkirk 13).

Despite counterarguments that affirmative action is a form of “reverse racism,” where whites are missing out on opportunities because blacks are taking their spots due to race-conscious policies, affirmative action is still justified because this argument does not take into account the actual lack of merit in the merit argument or white privilege, a form of generational discrimination that has made whites preferential in universities due to alumni connections. Sylvia A. Law, the Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law, Medicine, and Psychiatry, claims that the merit argument, which refers to focusing on test scores for admission to universities, is faulty. Law validly claims that standardized tests are mere indicators of people who can test well and economic class, and even the creators of these tests acknowledge the limitations of this type of measurement (623). Law finds that if affirmative action policies were not implemented, the number of black students would dramatically decrease while “the probability that any individual rejected white applicant would have been admitted would have risen only from about 25 percent to about 26.5 percent,” since many applicants actually do have similar test scores (624).

Law also emphasizes how, with courts being strict on their interpretation of affirmative action cases, referring to a focus on achievement, there is “more pressure to use numbers as a shorthand for merit” (627). As a result of using numbers like SAT and ACT scores, larger and poorer schools will suffer a lack of diversity and representation while smaller, richer schools will reap the benefits of diversity (Law 627). This difference in diversity would occur because numbers and test scores are not the only indicators of how successful a student will be and, by basing admissions standards mainly on such information, the more disadvantaged black students will face higher rates of rejection. The absence of diversity in institutions could greatly hurt students because, according to the American Council on Education, diversity in education “enriches the educational experience, promotes personal growth and a healthy society, strengthens communities and the workplace, and enhances America's competitiveness” (Pamela 19). Additionally, many scholars support affirmative action because they believe that “there is not an adequate substitute for race-based affirmative action at this time… [that] will maintain the level of racial and ethnic diversity that has been achieved on today's college and university campuses” (Pamela 20). Overall, if we do not uphold affirmative action policies, then we are denying blacks the right to gain equal access to opportunity and failing our citizens due to a lack of diverse and representative institutions.

While critics of affirmative action may argue that the policies are discriminatory against whites, there is little data to support the claim that affirmative action measures are unfair to white students. By examining court cases, which tend to be based on such claims of discrimination, it is clear that many courts have dismissed such cases due to evidence that “revealed that the plaintiffs would not have been accepted to the institution even if race and gender factors were removed from the admission process” (Garrison-Wade et al. 25). Additionally, these critics do not consider the prevalence of white preference in society. White people do have forms of preferential treatment, one being the “legacy admit” phenomenon, where “children of alums, or of major donors get preferential treatment” (Law 624). Harvard University is a clear example: “More white students gain entry as ‘legacy admits’ than do the total number of Black, Hispanic, and American Indian students,” which shows that whites, who are typically in a higher economic class than minorities, are admitted on a basis other than merit regularly, and black students are further oppressed by generational racism that has previously denied minorities access to this same education (Law 624). Interestingly, this practice is concentrated mainly at American institutions, so it comes off as odd when comparing the practice to international admissions systems due to its illogical basis in familial connections.

There are some limitations with this project in terms of the ability to quantify affirmative action’s long-term effects. For example, “More research on the success rate of minorities and women during and after college would strengthen the support of affirmative action policies” (Garrison-Wade et al. 25). By understanding these success rates, there would be greater support for the justification of affirmative action, as numbers and statistics are often necessary as a persuasive element. Overall, such information would help demonstrate affirmative action’s role in equalizing the races in education and in society overall.

Further research on this topic could look more at the statistics pertaining to black students affected by affirmative action policies after they finish higher education. Such research could reveal more about how affirmative action policies affect black students once they have entered the job market, and how these policies help or hinder their success. Additionally, information about the changing demographic of the labor market could also give insight into the effectiveness of affirmative action in terms of making society more equal overall for black people.

Overall, affirmative action policies are justified and necessary in order to provide opportunity to disadvantaged black students by giving them a chance to thrive in higher education institutions. Determining affirmative action’s justifiability is important because every second we wait is another second where inequality and discrimination persist and hinder the futures of so many in the educational system. In addressing the education system, inequalities at all levels of society, like employment, could be improved upon. Affirmative action’s justification matters, especially in the current discourse of it, because the policies are being attacked. Recent news reports have found that the Trump Administration has plans to allocate resources to investigating universities for discrimination against white students. Such an investigation would harm affirmative action’s support because it would seemingly endorse reverse racism as a valid argument in the debate. It is vital that these policies remain in place to promote equal opportunity for black citizens. If we do not uphold affirmative action policies, then we are denying blacks the right to gain equal access to opportunity and failing all of our citizens due to a lack of diverse and representative institutions. The US, and the world as a whole, have much to gain from high achieving citizens, social equality, and a more educated population, goals that affirmative action can help the US to achieve; it is in the best interest of all people in the United States, regardless of race or ethnicity.


Works Cited

Byrnes, Erin E. "Unmasking White Privilege to Expose the Fallacy of White Innocence: Using a Theory of Moral Correlativity to Make the Case for Affirmative Action Programs in Education." Arizona Law Review, vol. 41, no.  2, 1999, pp. 535-72. HeinOnline, heinonline.org/HOL/ Page?handle =hein.journals/arz41&collection=

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Darling-Hammond, Linda. "Unequal Opportunity: Race and Education." Brookings, The Brookings Institution, 1 Mar. 1998, www.brookings.edu/articles/unequal-opportunity-race-and-education/. Accessed 13 Sept. 2017.

Fullinwider, Robert, "Affirmative Action." The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, 2017. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed 12 Sept. 2017.

Garrison-Wade, Dorothy F. and Chance W. Lewis. "Affirmative Action: History and Analysis." Journal of College Admission, no. 184, Summer2004, pp. 23-26. EBSCOhost, auth.lib.unc.edu/ezproxy_auth.php?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eft&AN=507921263&s....

Jackson, Liz. "Reconsidering Affirmative Action in Education as a Good for the
Disadvantaged." Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, vol. 6, no. 1, May 2008. ERIC Indexed, www.jceps.com/archives/577. Accessed 13 Sept. 2017.

Law, Sylvia A. "White Privilege and Affirmative Action." Akron Law Review, vol.
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Newkirk II, Vann R. "Affirmative Action and the Myth of Reverse Racism." The Atlantic, www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/08/myth-of-reverse-racism/535.... Accessed 7 Sept 2017.

Pamela, Barta M. "The History of Affirmative Action Law and its Relation to College Admission." Journal of College Admission, no. 179, 2003, pp. 14-21, ProQuest Central, http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docvie....

Zamani-Gallaher, Eboni M., et al. "The Language of Entitlement and Framing of Affirmative Action." The Case for Affirmative Action on Campus : Concepts of Equity, Considerations for Practice, Stylus Publishing, 2011, pp. 31-51. ProQuest Ebook Central, ebookcentral.proquest.com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/lib/unc/reader.action?docID= 4438613. Accessed 14 Sept. 2017.


About the Author(s)

Cheyenne Desrosiers is a junior at UNC majoring in Media and Journalism and minoring in Social and Economic Justice. After graduation in May 2020, she aspires to work in an advertising agency and apply her classroom knowledge to real-world campaigns.