The Supreme Court rejected a challenge to a race-conscious admissions program at the University of Texas at Austin on Thursday. The move was, in effect, a ruling in favor of affirmative action — a longstanding practice in which race and gender are considered among several factors in hiring and admissions decisions.
There's a widespread idea that affirmative action is primarily about diversity. If a campus or workplace is racially diverse, the thinking goes, performance improves, and we're all made better for it. It's an idea that's so widespread that both advocates and critics of affirmative action use it to make their arguments. But if we focus on diversity, we miss the entire point of affirmative action.
From its conception in the 1960s, affirmative action was not about diversity — it was about equity. In other words, it was a conscious attempt to address real institutional damage done to women and communities of color that kept them out of America's classrooms and workplaces — and still do.
Affirmative action, as we know it, came into existence on Sept. 28, 1965, by executive order from President Lyndon B. Johnson. The country was less than a year removed from the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 which, among other things, outlawed discrimination based on race, sex and religion. In his executive order, Johnson took that act one step further by announcing that the federal government would not only prohibit such discrimination, but would proactively work to prevent it.
"The contractor will not discriminate against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, creed, color, or national origin," the order read. "The contractor will take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin."
In his executive order, Johnson was acknowledging that such discrimination wasn't just the unfortunate result of interpersonal interactions that kept people from different cultures away from one another. He was admitting that structural racism crippled black Americans' opportunities, and that the so-called "equal playing field" of American meritocracy didn't exist.
That much was clear in a speech Johnson made months earlier at Howard University. African-Americans, he said, "are trapped—as many whites are trapped—in inherited, gateless poverty. They lack training and skills. They are shut in, in slums, without decent medical care. Private and public poverty combine to cripple their capacities."
But the evils of black poverty were different than the ones afflicting white communities. "It is the devastating heritage of long years of slavery; and a century of oppression, hatred, and injustice," he said.
By rejecting a challenge to affirmative action on Thursday, the Supreme Court acknowledged that the devastating impact of slavery and institutional racism still exists. Poverty still exists along deeply racialized lines. Neighborhoods and schools are more segregated now than at any point in the last 40 years. And the government must still play a proactive role in making sure that American citizens are afforded their constitutional right to opportunity for all.