The Importance of Affirmative Action


Graphic: Heather Holm

Affirmative action has historically been used for the purpose of increasing diversity in university student bodies, especially in the admissions process. The precedent of using race-conscious measures for college admissions and hiring more generally was set in 1965 when President Lyndon B. Johnson created the Office of Federal Contract Compliance in the Department of Labor to uphold affirmative action in government jobs. Over the years, however, there has been a near-constant debate over the ethics of affirmative action, with states banning race-conscious admissions processes time and again. Currently, North Carolina is dealing with two cases that threaten the sanctity of affirmative action in the state. 

Affirmative action is an important practice that works to provide a leg up for those who have been oppressed historically by the US government, resulting in generations of people who do not have the same opportunities as white Americans. In a country that has a long history of discrimination based on race and sex, affirmative action is imperative to ensure that all citizens get a fair chance at succeeding – and a major aspect of this starts with a college education.

Opponents of affirmative action argue that this practice harms white students and, as a more recent argument suggests, Asian-American students. According to the Center for American Progress, “this harmful myth perpetuates inaccurate narratives of homogeneity in Asian-American communities; disregards significant socio-economic differences between ethnicities; and ignores the stark intraracial disparities affirmative action helps to alleviate.”

Students at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are split on the importance of affirmative action in university admissions policies. Some argue that race should not give an applicant a leg up in the competitive admissions process, while others uphold the idea that universities have a duty to grapple with their racist histories through practices such as affirmative action.

If schools such as The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill remove race-conscious admissions practices, it is likely that minority representation will drop dramatically, as evidenced by previous bans on affirmative action that resulted in drastic reductions in minority admissions. For example, according to The American Association for Access, Equity and Diversity, in 1998, the University of California banned the use of affirmative action, which resulted in a 61 percent “drop in admissions of African American, Latino/a and Native American students,” with UCLA experiencing a 36 percent drop. Another study found that without affirmative action, students of color are 23 percent less likely to be admitted to selective public colleges. Clearly, affirmative action has tangible effects on minority students’ ability to attend institutes of higher education.

Diversity in colleges and universities is beneficial to every student, not only those minorities who benefit from race-conscious admissions policies. According to the Center for American Progress, “evidence gathered by the Century Foundation suggests that racially integrated classrooms can reduce students’ racial bias, improve satisfaction and intellectual self-confidence, and enhance leadership skills,” all of which leads to improvements in an increasingly diverse global economy and overall productivity of workplaces. As we watch the unfolding of these pending cases in North Carolina, it is important to be aware of the benefits of affirmative action and the all too often attempts to reverse this important practice. Students such as those who created the Affirmative Action Coalition at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill show us how we must speak up for the practices we believe in, and speak out against those trying to reverse these crucial practices that aim to create equality of opportunity in a country that has denied non-white Americans that right for far too long.