Despite the Rev. Jesse Jackson's recent disastrous Reddit interview, the man has a point about diversifying the tech sector whose lily white and male ranks — even in nontechnical jobs — speak to our persistent unwillingness to crack the door of opportunity for everyone.
Jackson points to the college-to-careers pipeline as one fix for the persistent problem of putting minority graduates to work. Yet, if anti-affirmative action foes have their way, the supply of qualified, college-educated, minority candidates is threatened.
Next term the Supreme Court will once-again hear the Fisher v. University of Texas affirmative action case and decide whether race can be a factor in college admissions. Since the case was sent back to lower courts in 2013, affirmative action has been debated in classrooms across the country, prompting minority students to defend their place in higher education.
What happens when colleges and universities no longer consider race in their admissions process at all? Jeb Bush has the answer.
Bush’s executive order 99-281 forbade the use of race and gender in Florida college admissions, and in its place established the Talented Twenty Program, which guaranteed admission to any Florida university for students in the top 20 percent of their class. On the campaign trail, the Republican presidential candidate has boasted about this ban. Yet he failed to mention at the University of Florida, the state’s flagship school, diversity has dwindled.
Between 2007 and 2013, black enrollment of freshman dropped by more than 50 percent, according to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. The ban, in conjunction, with recent changes to eligibility standards for the Bright Futures scholarship program likely caused the decline.
I graduated in 2009. On my first day, I was greeted by other African-American students from different socioeconomic backgrounds, eager to make their mark. We hosted pre-law meetings at the Institute of Black Culture, stayed up late to study and finally graduated together, adorned with colorful cords and sashes highlighting our achievements. If we were to host a UF Class of 2009 “Where Are they Now?” episode it would feature doctors, lawyers and teachers with countless graduate and professional degrees. Today, the inclusive environment that welcomed us is disappearing.
One could argue eliminating race in college admissions decisions levels the playing field for everyone, but studies show when affirmative action is banned, minorities suffer. After affirmative action was banned in Michigan, Texas and California, enrollment rates for Hispanics and African-Americans dropped. Furthermore, socioeconomic status is not a replacement for race in admissions. A 2013 study stated both socioeconomic diversity and racial diversity of a student body promotes a positive educational experience, and the former is not a replacement for the latter.
Let’s not forget the purpose of affirmative action is to right past wrongs and ensure equal opportunity for those who have been historically discriminated against. Historically black colleges and universities were born out of a need to provide education for those who had been denied the right by predominantly white institutions, filling a necessary void. In 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson signed an executive order for affirmative action for government contractors and higher educational intuitions followed suit, it was past due. In a commencement address at Howard University, Johnson said, “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.”
Today, the racial wealth gap is widening for communities of color. The median wealth for white households is 20 times that of African American households. The root of this disparity is discrimination in wages, housing and yes, education. The lack of college education accounts for 5 percent of the growing racial wealth gap. The post-racial narrative is offensive when systemic inequality continues to have real consequences for communities of color. Banning affirmative action in college admissions would only exacerbate this problem.
Clearly, the “level playing field” argument dismisses diversity as an asset. Not only is diversity valuable in education but also in the workforce. Consider tech companies, which represent the fastest-growing jobs sector, are starting to get serious about diversity efforts. For example, Intel committed this year to invest $300 million to build a pipeline for women and underrepresented groups, including hiring and retention. For the businesses that universities feed, diversity quite literally means a better bottom line.
“Without a workforce that more closely mirrors the population, we are missing opportunities, including not understanding and designing for our own customers,” according to Intel CEO Brian Krzanich.
For many of us, as sole the black person in class, we are called upon to represent our race’s view on the atrocities that occurred in the past, cringing as we try to articulate a water-downed version from a chapter of a history book. Yet, we are expected to be grateful for that seat and not fight for others.
I hope the Supreme Court rules against Ms. Fisher so she can get on with her life and recognizes that diversity, in all its forms, should be valued at higher educational institutions. As my alma mater’s pep song reminds us “we stick together, in all kinds of weather,” I hope that in the future “we” includes people that look like me.
Brown is program manager of the Center for Global Policy Solution’s community engagement initiative.