Affirmative Inaction: Opposition to Affirmative Action Has Drastically Reduced Minority Enrollment at Public Universities
In his 1965 commencement address at Howard University, President Lyndon Johnson declared, “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.” The affirmative-action approach President Johnson proposed in that speech was to be a moral and policy response to the losses, both material and psychological, suffered by African Americans during and after the time of slavery: “We seek not just freedom but opportunity—not just legal equity but human ability—not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and as a result.” Johnson’s speech was followed in 1965 by executive orders aiming “to correct the effects of past and present discrimination.” Universities and colleges across the land soon adopted affirmative-action policies. More than 45 years have passed since that June afternoon on the Howard campus. What is the fate of Johnson’s triumphant vision in the world we now occupy?
If you listen to Roger Clegg, who heads up the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank devoted to “colorblind public policy,” the answer is that the practice of affirmative action in higher education has put the country on the path to grievous error. Clegg believes, as he said in a 2007 speech to the Heritage Foundation, that the policy “passes over better qualified students, and sets a disturbing legal, political, and moral precedent in allowing racial discrimination; … it stigmatizes the so-called beneficiaries … fosters a victim mindset, removes the incentive for academic excellence, and encourages separatism; it compromises the academic mission of the university and lowers the overall academic quality of the student body.” He contends, as do his many allies, that anything diluting academic excellence hurts teachers and students alike because colleges and universities exist primarily to protect and exalt the life of the mind.
A very different response to Johnson’s speech came, 38 years after its delivery, from within the chambers of the United States Supreme Court. In 2003, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, having just voted on two cases involving the admissions policies of the University of Michigan, predicted that affirmative action would soon end because it would no longer be needed: