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Affirmative Action:
An Anachronism in Higher Education?

Racism continues to operate and limit opportunities
for people of color in this country

Jose J. Soto, JD
Lincoln, Nebraska

Of late, many individuals at institutions of higher education are asking the question, "Is affirmative action an anachronism at universities and colleges?" My answer is an unequivocal and emphatic "NO!"

Our society continues to need affirmative action in employment, public contracting, and in the academy. And of these three arenas, the fields of higher education are the most barren and in desperate need of leadership and tending from affirmative action professionals.

Have things really changed?

Many individuals in this country believe and ardently argue that people of color have made great progress socially and economically. Because they perceive that progress has been made, they conclude that efforts like affirmative action are outdated, unfair and unnecessary. The fact is that racism, discrimination, exclusion and economic marginalization based on skin color continue to impede the progress of, and are a part of the current reality for too many, people of color in this country.

Yes, higher education has made some progress. It has moved away from the old attitudes of exclusion. What it has not done is move far enough away from the institutionalized behaviors of exclusion. Even now -- thirty-three years after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- students of color continue to suffer from the neglect, disinterest, misguidance, and passive hostilities of educators and educational systems that just don't understand, don't care about, or don't see the too often negative consequences of being a person of color in this country.

Skin color is no longer as much of a barrier to higher education as it once was. But skin color --and race, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, national origin, and economic status-- continues to be a very real barrier to higher education, employment and full participation in this "democracy." Proof of this reality lies within the walls of most public and private enterprises (including institutional of higher education) in this country, where people of color are underrepresented, represented in merely a token fashion, or simply not represented at all.

Hopwood should not deter us from taking Affirmative Action

The reality that racism continues to operate and limit opportunities for people of color in this country

belies the rhetoric that we have made "sufficient progress" to warrant dismantling Affirmative Action. To the contrary, we should be looking toward expanding our efforts to open doors and to level the playing fields for people of color.

To this end, despite the recent U.S. Court of Appeals 5th Circuit decision (Hopwood v. University of Texas, 1996), the use of race as one of many appropriate criteria to consider in making admissions decisions in higher education is permitted (Bakke v. University of California-Davis, U.S. Supreme Court, 1978). And until the U.S. Supreme Court says something different, the governance and administrative leadership at institutions of higher education -- outside of Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana-- should continue to actively support and aggressively promote affirmative action as a tool to give form and substance to our national credo of equal opportunity.

If not Affirmative Action, What?

Most critics of affirmative action do not see the need for, and thus do not offer, reasonable alternatives to affirmative action. Nor do they take any personal responsibility for finding reasonable solutions to problems that undergird the need for affirmative action. The majority of Affirmative Action's critics refuse to take any direct and meaningful action to eliminate the racism that continues to negatively impact on a daily basis the lives of people of color.

Those who most vehemently denounce affirmative action are typically the ones who have the power and authority to do something to make affirmative action unnecessary ... such as implementing alternatives that will ensure that people of color who are qualified are not always at a disadvantage ... , such as finding solutions to the oppressive social conditions that have plagued people of color in this hemisphere since 1492 ..., such as eliminating racism and its effects in their own sphere of influence and authority. Their attacks on affirmative action and their refusal to act affirmatively do nothing to remedy the situations and conditions that continue to make affirmative action necessary.

Affirmative Action, needed now more than ever

No, affirmative action is not anachronistic, dead, or useless. It is timely, alive and very much needed. And it is naive to think that academe -- or any other social, governmental, or economic enterprise for that matter-- is at a point where unguided and random decision-making processes will naturally create anything other than more of what we already have: a dominant culture controlling and reaping the benefits and privileges of power, while qualified and deserving people of color (and others similarly disenfranchised, e.g., gays/lesbians, women, immigrants, the poor) continue to struggle for inclusion, equal opportunity, and acknowledgment that they too are worthy partners in American society.

A bottom line ...

Eliminating individual and institutionalized racism in this country will go far toward eliminating the need for Affirmative Action programs. Eliminating Affirmative Action programs, however, will do nothing to eliminate the racism that justifies the continued existence of these programs.

Sometimes, the simplest truths are the most powerful ...

An unsolicited commentary.

About the author: Jose J. Soto, JD is Vice President for Affirmative Action/Equity/Diversity, Southeast Community College, Lincoln, Nebraska.

Published in In Motion Magazine January 18, 1999.

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