The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to punt a crucial affirmative action case back to a lower court doesn’t change the continuing need for race-conscious programs.
If we want to live in an America where a person’s race or ethnicity is no longer a barrier to success, we can’t make the mistake of pretending we’re already there.
It may be uncomfortable to say it, but race still matters in America. Racial inequity remains a major problem, and doing away with consideration of race would mean trying to tackle this profound inequality with one hand tied behind our back.
We have an astonishing and growing racial wealth gap in this country. For every dollar a white family in America owns, the median Asian family has 63 cents, the median Latino family has about 7 cents, and the median African-American family has less than a nickel.
That is not sustainable.
We simply cannot build a strong, prosperous country with that level of inequality.
Getting into college
We know that higher education is a critically important pathway to increased income and financial security. That’s why affirmative action for college applicants of color is so vital.
In California, we’ve seen what happens when you strike down affirmative action in college admissions. When voters outlawed affirmative action in 1996, the number of African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans at UCLA and UC Berkeley — the University of California’s most selective and prestigious campuses — dropped by more than half and never fully recovered.
The University of Texas tried an admissions policy that didn’t consider race at all, and while the resulting student body was fairly diverse, the school found that many of its classes had only one nonwhite student. University officials changed their policy because they wanted to do better by all their students.
People may assume that considering race benefits only “minority” students, but that isn’t true. Diverse classrooms help white students at least as much as blacks, Asians and Latinos.
Picture a classroom discussion of the history of the U.S. civil rights movement, apartheid in South Africa or the many waves of immigration to the United States. In a room full of students from varied racial and ethnic backgrounds, the discussion would be starkly different than in a class that was nearly all white.
It’s healthy and educational to have your assumptions challenged and to consider ideas you might not have encountered otherwise. After all, that’s what education is for.
That’s why diversity matters.
And that’s why — even if it makes some of us uncomfortable — we can’t afford the fantasy that America has magically become colorblind.
We shouldn’t have to wait for someone to say the “N-word” to realize that we still live in a racially charged society.
Orson Aguilar is executive director of The Greenlining Institute.