THE BLOG

The Conversation We're Not Having When We Talk About Affirmative Action

06/06/2013 04:55 pm ET | Updated Aug 06, 2013

An affirmative action case now before the U.S. Supreme Court provides renewed proof of the urgent need for communities across the country to engage openly in developing deeper understanding about the issue of racism.

Before the successes of the civil rights movement, discrimination against people of color was easy to spot in the United States. Today, many Americans find racist beliefs and attitudes abhorrent, and there's no question that we have made great progress as a country in addressing overt and legalized racism. But these changes in our laws and culture do not mean that racial bias is a thing of the past.

Before the court recesses at the end of June, it will issue a decision in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. At immediate stake in the case is the university's policy of considering race as one factor among many in its admissions. Even with the policy, the school's student body is not representative of the state's high school graduates. Striking it down would further harm efforts to create diversity in Texas' flagship public university.

If the university prevails, it will be partly a result of the court's recognition of the compelling educational benefits that all students receive when they are part of a diverse student body. These benefits are undeniable and well-documented. For example, when students from different walks of life come together in the classroom, they are able to challenge each other to think critically about their own worldviews.

But a focus on the educational benefits of diversity puts aside the fact that students of color still confront, and must overcome, hidden racial biases in order to succeed in school and in life. That's why a deeper understanding about racism is necessary. As Ronald Brownstein so capably emphasized in a recent National Journal story, the state of race in America has changed dramatically since the last time the Supreme Court considered the issue of affirmative action.

Racial bias can manifest itself in far more subtle ways today, and sometimes in far more overt ways. This past week, we have witnessed the racist reactions to a simple television commercial that leads with a child of an interracial relationship, and shows both parents. The flood of racist comments to the YouTube page led General Mills to remove the comments section for that video.

And we know that two-thirds of broadcast media about Muslims portrays them as extremists. School teachers may have lower expectations for Hispanic or black students than they have for white students. Doctors may diagnose and treat black patients differently from white patients, even when they present the same symptoms. Mortgage lenders may be more likely to steer homebuyers of color to subprime loans even when they qualify for lower-cost prime loans. According to a Christian Science Monitor cover story backed by data from the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, white students make up 51 percent of students in schools, but just 33 percent of expulsions. The story describes cases in which similar infractions result in detention for white students and suspension for students of color.

These biases abound in other realms, from art to commerce to the justice system, exacting a toll on the health of people of color which has an impact upon the future viability of the nation. The point is that they are not necessarily -- or even typically - -conscious decisions on the part of the teachers, doctors, and lenders. A number of well-regarded studies show that we are not aware of our own implicit biases. This is explored eloquently in the book, Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People, by Banaji and Greenwald.

We have to recast the social and policy narrative that is at the heart of the Fisher case to finally capture the fact that hidden racial biases continue to shape our society in ways that are damaging our nation's future.

The perspective of individual applicants like Abigail Fisher, the young white woman who was denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin and became the complainant in the case, has helped to perpetuate current and predominant narratives around affirmative action. We must expand the narrative by laying bare the hidden racial biases that act as obstacles in the paths of young people of color who want to go to college. A broader narrative would help us understand the abilities and grit that minority applicants required in order to put themselves on the path to college despite these obstacles. It would move all of us beyond a constrained idea of what prepares students for college success.

African Americans comprise 12 percent of the working-age population in the U.S., yet only five percent of doctors and dentists and three percent of architects are black, proportions that have not changed in over two decades, according to a recent New York Times story. The proportion of minority lawyers actually declined in 2010, according to the Times -- one more sign of a widening racial wealth gap confirmed by a recent study from the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University. The study found that over a period of 25 years from 1984 to 2009, the total wealth gap between white and African-American families nearly tripled.

As we await the Supreme Court's decision, two important findings about the reality of higher education in the U.S. come to mind. The most recent one is a Brookings Institution study showing that despite the billion-dollar-a-year investment, several long-standing federal programs intended to prepare low-income and disadvantaged students for college are failing. Another piece of research from Stanford University's Carolina Hoxby and Harvard University's Christopher Avery identifies tens of thousands of qualified low-income students, 30 percent of them young people of color, who aren't even applying to elite colleges.

If we fail to finally open the doors of opportunity to all students in the U.S., regardless of skin color, then we all lose. By the middle of this century, the Census Bureau tells us, the U.S. population will be majority minority. Our ability to compete in the global economy demands that we prepare students from every background for success in college and careers. Our nation's long struggle for equality demands that our campuses come to look more like our communities.

If nothing else, the Supreme Court's impending decision will give us a reason to address the nation's unique legacy of racism and its continuing impact, even in the 21st century. Let's not miss that chance.