Why We Still Need Affirmative Action

By Cecilia Chen

graduationDiverse perspectives. Challenging questions. A glimpse into someone else’s worldview. As an Asian- American woman, affirmative action was something I didn’t fully understand until I went to college. Looking back, I realize that my peers from different racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds pushed me to look beyond what was familiar and question what “fairness” really meant. Those experiences laid the groundwork for my future and today I am the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Fellow at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. Inclusive admissions policies that helped provide students like me with the opportunity to benefit from diverse educational experiences are now an issue before the Supreme Court. But at their core, these policies embody many of the values Justice Marshall and our country represent: fairness, access, and opportunity. Here in California we have a glimpse of what a future without these values looks like. It is not reassuring.

Fourteen years ago, California passed Proposition 209, banning most forms of affirmative action at the University of California. The results were immediate and long-lasting. UC saw sharp declines in the attendance of African-American and American Indian students. Today these groups are enrolled far below pre-Proposition 209 levels. And although Latino students are now almost half of all high school graduates in the state, they make up less than one-fourth of incoming UC freshmen.

This loss in diversity is felt most acutely by those in whom we should be investing the most – students. Many students enter UC eager to study in an environment as diverse as their state. However, with the decline in diversity, students from all backgrounds find their college experiences often limited by myopic views and homogenous life experiences.

UC’s decreasing diversity harms not just students, but the state as a whole. California’s ban on affirmative action has led many minority students accepted to UC to favor out-of-state private universities that have diversity policies. This “brain drain” deprives California’s public universities of the chance to cultivate some of our most promising young minds. By voting with their feet, these students took their intellects and ideas out of California—a severe blow to the quality of the state’s higher education system.

Common sense tells us that the convergence of diverse minds and experiences sparks dialogue and leads to new ideas. In an increasingly diverse global market, we should be encouraging students to stretch beyond their comfort zone, thereby fostering the growth of innovative solutions essential for our nation’s economic growth and success.

Affirmative action is often mischaracterized as something that only benefits select groups. However, the truth is we all benefit. As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, our country benefits from producing leaders, workers and others who are able to bridge divides and successfully cultivate relationships across diverse backgrounds. We need admissions policies that give students the same opportunity I had to learn and grow with a diverse group of peers – policies that expand opportunities for talented individuals from all backgrounds to succeed in an economy that will embody diversity.

At the end of the day, policies that expand opportunities in higher education are not just good for some of us; they are good for all of us. I hope that the Supreme Court will recognize that admissions policies that foster diversity help move America forward and are necessary for our future.

About the Author

Cecilia Chen, Esq. is a Thurgood Marshall Fellow at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. She co-authored the friend of the court brief submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of 28 student organizations with the University of California. As a TM Fellow, Cecilia advocates for equal access to education on behalf of low-income students of color throughout the Bay Area.