On Tuesday night, the New York Times reported that Justice Department officials are preparing to devote resources to investigate and potentially sue American universities over their affirmative action admissions policies. The reason? These policies apparently “discriminate against white applicants,” according to the report.
This is hardly the first time affirmative action — a set of procedures intended to correct for discrimination against disadvantaged groups — has come under fire. The policy has long been surrounded by many misconceptions, perhaps most obviously the erroneous idea that it helps some students at the expense of other, more deserving ones. The facts, however, tell a different story. Here are 19 things you need to know about affirmative action -- and what the Justice Department is putting at stake.
1.Racial segregation was legal in U.S. schools until 1954, when the Supreme Court struck it down in the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education.
2. It still took a long, long time for schools to integrate; a federal judge in Mississippi had to order schools to do so in May of 2016 — more than 50 years after Brown.
3. To this day, minority students more often attend lower quality elementary and secondary schools, defined by the Brookings Institute as being based on "dimensions such as test score performance and teacher experience."
4. As such, many minority students are presented with fewer advantages and opportunities than white students from the start of their academic lives.
5. Minority students are more likely than white students to be the first in their families to earn a four-year degree — i.e. "first generation students."
6. About half of first generation students are low-income.
7. Affirmative action isn’t just about class. Studies have shown that students of color face specific psychological pressures that can affect their academic experiences. These include the threat of being “viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype, or the fear of doing something that would inadvertently confirm that stereotype,” Scientific American reports, and expectations about encountering racism in their educational environment.
8. Americans support affirmative action roughly two-to-one, according to Pew Research Center.
9. Despite being widely viewed as an advocate of colorblind policies, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for the Negro." He also invoked the GI Bill to defend affirmative action style policies: “Within common law we have ample precedents for special compensatory programs ... And you will remember that America adopted a policy of special treatment for her millions of veterans after the war.”
10. Affirmative action isn't about rewarding unqualified candidates; title VII of the Civil Rights Act made it illegal to base a hiring decision on someone's race or gender back in 1964. This means employers can't hire "less qualified" applicants just to fill an identity quota.
11. In 2016, the Supreme Court ruled that admissions officials could consider race as one factor among many to ensure a diverse student body in the case Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin.
12. Despite affirmative action, people of color are still significant minorities on the campuses of most predominantly white institutions (PWIs). In fact, while the percentage of college students who were Black and Hispanic rose between 2000 and 2014, they still compose just 14.5 percent and 16.5 percent of college students respectively.
13. States that ban affirmative action have been proven to see reduced enrollment of black and hispanic students — groups already underrepresented in higher education. This means even less diversity on those campuses.
14. People of color do not automatically receive free college admission based on their race, although some affirmative action critics seem to believe they do.
15. While affirmative action is being hotly debated, less is being said about legacy students — those with a familial relationship to a university. One study of admissions decisions at 30 highly selective colleges and universities put the odds of a legacy being accepted at one of their parents’ alma mater as more than seven times higher than an ordinary applicant's, according to expert Daniel Golden.
16. One out of every 10 Georgetown undergraduates is a legacy.
17. The University of Pennsylvania admits 29 percent of alumni children, in comparison to their overall applicant acceptance rate of 16 percent, also according to Golden.
18. Late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia notoriously revealed the racism often inherent to affirmative action opposition when he stated in 2015 that African American students would “do well” at “a less-advanced school.”
19. White students are about 40 percent more likely than students of color to receive college scholarships.