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U.S. Politics

Since 1978, American universities have not been able to implement measures such as quotas to meet the goal of a diverse student body. With the U.S. Department of Justice planning to investigate how affirmative action polices are used by colleges, Simona Chiose looks at what affirmative action means in America, as well as the benefits, drawbacks and alternatives to it

The U.S. Department of Justice is planning to investigate how colleges use affirmative action policies.

The news that the U.S. Department of Justice may be planning to investigate how colleges use affirmative action policies was greeted with instant vows of resistance from much of American higher education Wednesday. By the afternoon, it was unclear what exact measures the DOJ was contemplating, but the issue of whether universities can use race-based admission policies has a long and controversial history in the United States.

What does affirmative action mean in America?

Since 1978, American universities have not been able to implement crude measures such as quotas to meet the goal of a diverse student body. Instead, they are currently allowed to consider an applicant's race when extending admission and financial aid offers only as part of a number of measures toward meeting that aim. Universities must also show that other measures to increase diversity have not succeeded to increase the number of minority students.

While the Supreme Court has said the federal government must give individual universities freedom to pursue whatever educational objectives each institution believes is most important to them, schools must also show that their use of race-based admission policies serves a "compelling" government interest. Such interests, the Supreme Court ruled last summer, may include fighting stereotypes and encouraging cross-cultural understanding.

Former U.S. president Lyndon Johnson said equality could only be advanced by considering a person’s background.

The idea that in order to treat people equally, you may have to treat them unequally in some areas has a long philosophical history and was invoked by U.S. president Lyndon Johnson in 1964. In a speech, Mr. Johnson said equality could only be advanced by considering a person's background. "Men and women of all races are born with the same range of abilities. But ability is not just the product of birth. Ability is stretched or stunted by the family that you live with, and the neighbourhood you live in – by the school you go to and the poverty or the richness of your surroundings."

Do Canadian universities practice affirmative action?

Canadian governments and universities have largely restricted their efforts to expand access for underrepresented groups to helping students from poorer families pay for college and university. But questions are increasingly being raised about why minority groups appear to be underrepresented, particularly in professional programs such as medicine and law. And in recent years, many universities have begun programs to encourage and prepare Indigenous students to attend postsecondary education and to help them graduate once they are on campus.

What is the legal status of affirmative action?

In June, the Supreme Court ruled on the case of Abigail Fisher, a white student who sued the University of Texas over what she argued was a discriminatory admission policy. The Court disagreed with Ms. Fisher, saying the university had struck the right balance between "the pursuit of diversity and the constitutional promise of equal treatment and dignity."

In practice, however, the federal government is not the only one determining policy on affirmative action policies. Race-conscious admission policies have been restricted in multiple states including California, Michigan and Arizona. The most high-profile case is that of California, where in 1996 voters passed Proposition 209, which was a ballot measure that prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, sex or ethnicity.

And while advocates for affirmative action rejoiced at the Supreme Court decision last summer, the use of race-based admission continues to be challenged. Harvard University and the University of North Carolina are facing lawsuits from a student group alleging that their race-based admission policies discriminate against Asian-American applicants. When that case eventually makes its way through the courts, it may also spell the end of preferential admissions for the children of alumni, a practice that often leads to the most well-off students being admitted regardless of whether they have met other criteria.

What are the benefits and drawbacks of affirmative action?

One of the most compelling current arguments for race-conscious admission policies is that they are the only way to ensure that the children of middle-class African-Americans, who are dealing both with the legacy of racism and current discrimination, will be able to access high-quality higher education. In this view, colour blind policies would help poor minorities but possibly lead to the exclusion of some middle-class minority students.

Critics, however, say that affirmative action based on class would reduce the heat of the debate and defuse racial tensions. Some research has also found that after affirmative action measures were banned in California, students from minority backgrounds were in fact more likely to enroll in university.

What are alternatives to affirmative action?

For two decades, Texas has promised every student who graduates in the top 10 per cent of their class that they will gain a spot at college. The rule, which is currently being questioned by some legislators, means that students' extra-curricular activities and SAT scores are not considered in admission decisions. It has been credited with maintaining diversity in university admissions, but has also had what the Supreme Court called the "perverse" effect of encouraging students to stay in low-performing schools in order to keep their marks up.