Affirmative Action Still Falls Short: Stubborn Barriers to Higher Educational Equality in Admissions for African-Americans Today

Educational discrimination against black Americans, including discrimination in higher education admissions, is far from a new practice. In fact, discrimination against African-Americans in all areas was explicitly condoned, within the original language of the United States Constitution. In that document, Negroes (as African-Americans were then universally called) were described as inherently unequal to whites. Even today, however, at the beginning of the 21st century, true equal educational opportunity, including equality of higher education admissions for African-Americans remain elusive for many, if not for most. Although current United States government affirmative action policies may help (though less than before) to 'level the playing field', in terms of higher education admissions for at least some black Americans, current affirmative action policies, at least based on a review of literature located for this topic, apparently still do not go nearly far enough to help create actual equality, within widespread higher education admissions processes, at the dawn of the 21st century. In answer to the question, then, of "Does affirmative action create equality in education?," it would seem that literature that has been written on the subject indicates that, although affirmative action (which is also weaker now than it was in past decades) is somewhat helpful toward achieving equal opportunity in higher education admissions for black Americans, it still is not nearly helpful enough in this respect.

Possibly, this is because affirmative action, in and of itself, has simply faced far too much widespread inequality against black Americans, to be able to overcome all of it on its own. Going back again through history, Article I, Section 2 of the United States Constitution states "Representatives...shall be apportioned among the several States... according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons...and....three-fifths of all other persons" ("Constitution of the United States," 2000, pp. 26-27). Quite simply, at least according to the literature researched here, for many African-Americans today, true equal opportunities for equal post-secondary educational access remain beyond reach, due to longstanding prejudices that have not been cured by affirmative action, despite affirmative action's best efforts (especially in the 1970's and 1980's).

Still, reasons for and the solutions to the problem of unequal higher learning opportunity for blacks remain unclear, and most likely do not rest entirely with affirmative action (or the lack of it) alone. Moreover, gains in post-secondary educational equality for blacks made in earlier decades, namely the 1960's, 1970's, and somewhat in the 1980's, seem, more recently to have slowed ("Why Aren't More Blacks Graduating from College," Winter 2000/2001). Moreover, within some institutions and regions, these have ceased altogether, or even reversed themselves (Bowen and Bok, 1998). Barriers [of many kinds] to higher educational opportunity for African-Americans have [thus] resulted in limited access and restrictions on college attendance for numerous African-American students (Eaton, 1994).

Clearly, opportunities for higher learning are important to all Americans, but perhaps they are especially so to blacks (and other minority students), since higher education is their primary (and, quite often only) means to upward mobility, social status, and eventual financial security. Thus today's persistent lack of equal higher educational opportunity for many black students represents what numerous African-American educators and students alike still see as a key reason for many black individuals' lingering inabilities to actually achieve the upward social mobility and financial gains they seek ("Why Aren't More Blacks Graduating from College?" Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (2000/2001)). Therefore, it seems that until and unless equal higher educational opportunity for blacks is achieved, this key means of social mobility will remain out of reach for all too many African-Americans in the twenty-first century.

In 1868, the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution overrode previous constitutional language stating that blacks were inherently inferior to whites under federal law ("Constitution," 2000). Before that date, however, in the mid-1800's, then-United States Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, in the Dred Scott Decision, ruled that the U.S. Constitution did not include Negroes as a participating element, or beneficiary of privileges (Dred Scott Case, 2002). That landmark Supreme Court ruling was eventually negated by the results of the Civil War itself, and by nationwide abolition of slavery throughout the United States, shortly thereafter. Today, however, often Americans themselves (and even some black Americans (see Moos, 2000) remain divided (as Americans have been for decades) about the advantages or disadvantages of using race as a factor to admit students to colleges or universities (U.S. Supreme Court Rules on University of Michigan Cases, June 23, 2003; Bowen and Bok, 1998; Thernstrom and Thernstrom, 1997; Comer and Poussaint, 1975).

Most recently, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in two separate University of Michigan cases, brought against it in 2000 and 2002, respectively: Gratz v. Bollinger, et al. And Grutter v. Bollinger, et al. (one undergraduate and one law school admission case, each brought by a white applicant who had been denied admission to one of those programs) that race could be used as one factor (just as grade point average; volunteer work, or extracurricular activities can be used as a factor) in higher education admissions decisions. However, also according to those rulings, students could not be admitted to higher education institutions based on race alone (i.e., through quotas).

Those recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, effectively weakened affirmative action again, especially since its heyday in the mid-1970's through the 1980's ("U.S. Supreme Court Rules on University of Michigan Cases," June 23, 2003). Therefore, it seems that truly equal higher education access for blacks will likely remain elusive as of now, just as it has been throughout much of United States history. Therefore, the future of affirmative action in higher education remains unclear. Moreover, currently, the make-up of U.S. Supreme Court is substantially more conservative than was the Supreme Court that heard Regents of the University of California v. Bakke in 1978, which defined both "remedial justification" (i.e., to remedy past inequalities) and the "diversity rationale" (because diversity serves a good academic and community purpose, within the field of study and for later work) as constitutional rationales for higher education admissions (Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, (1978), 1991). Further, the confirmation of current U.S. Supreme Court nominee John Roberts, to fill the vacancy recently created by retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a moderate, could make the United States Supreme Court of late 2005 and beyond more conservative still. And, although no one can predict the actions of the Supreme Court, historically that has not boded well for affirmative action. Should affirmative action in fact be further shrunk, due to future judicial decisions at the federal level, it seems that is would then likely become more important than ever for higher education to discover new ways, in addition to affirmative action, to continue eradicating the stubborn barriers to black access that, present since slavery, survive, and in many areas of the United States thrive today ("Why Aren't More Blacks Graduating from College?," Winter 2000/2001.)

Further, institutional and other factors contributing to higher educational inequality, including discrimination against African-American students in elementary, middle, and high schools, result frequently in their earning lower grades and college entrance exam scores, on average, than non-minorities (Kozol, 1993). Institutionalized barriers to black access to American higher educational institutions include (among other factors): poor K-12 education; lack of academic support (e.g., counseling, advising); cultural biases built into standardized tests; and lack of adequate financial assistance or affirmative action programs (McCormick, 2000).

Kozol (1993) also suggests that, "equality of educational opportunity throughout America remains far more a myth than a reality... For all the rhetoric of school reform that we have heard in recent years, there are no indications that this is about to change" (p. 4). Also, blacks' limited access to higher education frequently happens after other, earlier, discrimination in elementary, junior high, and high school. IQ tests are one example, since these identify where a student fits, on the bell-shaped curve (Parnell, 1995). Based on IQ, then, we label students "bright"; "gifted"; "college bound," "average"; or "slow or learning-deficient" (Parnell). Thernstrom and Thernstrom (1997) also observe that: "Society as a whole, then, must ultimately realize that racial progress depends on our common understanding that we are one nation, that Black [sic] poverty impoverishes us all, and that Black [sic] alienation eats at the nation's soul" (p. 1).

Increasingly (and much more than other higher educational institutions today, generally speaking), United States community colleges, with their open enrollment policies, typically offer greater access to higher education, for all high school graduates who apply, than do four-year colleges and universities, and/or other higher education institutions. Some community colleges have programs designed to encourage, and benefit specific underrepresented groups, therefore often assisting black students in overcoming class and social barriers to their higher educational access, and success. In this way, community colleges throughout the nation have begun to (more frequently and effectively, it seems,…