The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations: Why Affirmative Action Still Matters

Students demonstrate outside the Federal Courthouse, Wednesday, March 7, 2012, in Cincinnati, where the Sixth Circuit Court o
Students demonstrate outside the Federal Courthouse, Wednesday, March 7, 2012, in Cincinnati, where the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals was hearing oral arguments in their review of their ruling last summer that Proposal 2, the ban on affirmative action in Michigan, is unconstitutional. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)

On Oct. 10, the United States Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Fisher v. the University of Texas at Austin, its first consideration of race-conscious admissions since its 2003 landmark decision Grutter v. Bollinger upholding the constitutionality of the University of Michigan's affirmative action program. Abigail Fisher, an applicant to the University of Texas, is challenging UT Austin's modest consideration of race as one of the many factors that goes into admissions decisions. If the challenge is successful, Fisher would reverse decades of legal precedent, stifling universities' ability to develop a diverse student body, and closing the door to equal opportunities for students of color. Not only would minority students lose, but so would our nation.

Altough America has made substantial progress in race relations, there remains a systemic racial hierarchy that produces and perpetuates racial disparities in educational outcomes. Race-conscious admissions programs, like the one used by UT Austin, are designed to counter this systemic racism and create a vital pipeline to educational and professional opportunities for minority students. The proven success of these programs in increasing equal opportunity serves as compelling evidence of their value and counsels in favor of continuing them.

Despite this success, the tone of the debate around race-conscious admissions programs has changed since the Court validated the constitutionality of well-designed affirmative action admissions programs in Grutter. Most of the nation's universities and professional schools agree that a racially and ethnically diverse student body improves the quality of education for all students and has a positive impact on our larger society. Affirmative action certainly creates real opportunity for the students of color who are admitted under these programs. However, citing to a study of class rank and bar passage rates of African-American law students, some opponents of race-conscious admissions programs now argue that these programs demoralize minority students, lead them to attend colleges, universities and professional schools for which they are unqualified, and expose them to academic environments in which they are outmatched.

The often-recited statistics are indeed troubling, but race-conscious admissions programs cannot be faulted for those troubles. Myriad factors, beginning with structural racism and a failing system of public education, conspire to leave far too many students of color poorly prepared for college when compared to their peers.

But whatever challenges some students of color might face upon admission, it is paternalistic to argue that we should abandon race-conscious admissions programs in order to save minority students from their own supposedly flawed decisions. Minority students, like all students, are aware of the risks and rewards of attending school in a challenging and rigorous academic environment. These students knowingly choose to challenge themselves academically in exchange for the increased career opportunities that admissions programs like that at UT Austin's has made possible.

But this argument by affirmative action's opponents is not only paternalistic, it is wrong. It turns out that the choice of many minority students to attend competitive colleges and universities is a very good one. In Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America's Public Universities (2009), William G. Bowen, Matthew M. Chingos and Michael S. McPherson challenged the assumption that race-conscious admissions programs led to "mismatching" and lower graduation rates for African-American students. In their study, the authors grouped African American men by their high school GPAs and then examined whether those with relatively low GPAs who enrolled in more selective public universities graduated at lower rates than those with the same GPAs who attended less selective institutions. The results proved just the opposite -- for all GPA levels, African-American men who went to more selective institutions graduated at higher rates than their peers with similar grades who went to less selective colleges. Moreover, for students of similar gender, socioeconomic status, high school grades and SAT scores, graduation rates were highest for those students who attended the most selective schools.

George W. Bush once spoke of the "soft bigotry of low expectations." By arguing that affirmative action causes students of color to aim too high, affirmative action's opponents prove the truth of these words. America is built on a promise of equal opportunity. And while young men and women of color have never fully been party to that promise, achieving true equality of opportunity should be our nation's primary mission. The findings in Crossing the Finish Line support the conclusion that affirmative action is helping to improve academic and professional outcomes for minority students, by promoting their admission to academically rigorous colleges and universities. Students of color benefit, their classmates benefit, and, ultimately, America benefits.