It’s time to dispel the myth that affirmative action helps minorities

Ruben Nararrette
Liberal Opinion

Ruben Navarrette

Columnist, host & author
Archive |

Some legal observers believe the Supreme Court may overturn affirmative action policies currently in place at America’s universities. The justices are hearing challenges to admissions practices at Harvard and the University of North Carolina. Straight Arrow News contributor Ruben Navarrette has a personal connection to affirmative action and was once supportive of it. He no longer feels that way, and says it’s time to dispel the myth that affirmative action actually helps minorities.

Let’s back up a beat and define affirmative action…then I should describe my personal history with the concept. Affirmative action is more than 60 years old. It was on March 6, 1961, that President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10925. It required that U.S. government contractors take “affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.”

Americans have argued about the concept ever since. Three times over the last six decades, the Supreme Court has given colleges and universities permission to take the race ethnicity of applicants into account, as long as it’s just one factor among many in the admissions process. In 1978, in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the justices struck down a quota at UC-Davis Medical School, but said race could be considered. In 2003, in Grutter v. Bollinger, the court upheld the admissions policy at the University of Michigan Law School. In 2016 in Fisher v. University of Texas, the justices decided it was okay for UT-Austin to consider race and mission. 

My own personal relationship with affirmative action goes back to the fall of 1984, when I was a 17-year-old high school senior. As a Mexican American with perfect grades and advanced placement courses, I was accepted by five elite universities, including Harvard, which I would eventually attend. This inspired white friends whose grades weren’t as good as mine, to tell me that I would not have been admitted had I not been Mexican.

For a long time I stood by affirmative action, maybe out of loyalty, but over the last 20 years, not so much. Gradually, I’ve become convinced that when applied too aggressively, a program that was intended to benefit Latinos and African Americans can actually hurt them. It labels beneficiaries as unqualified, lowers academic standards and masks the failures of the K-12 public schools to properly educate Black and brown students.

Get it straight. Affirmative action is not an attack on whites and Asians. It’s a Band-aid on a bullet wound. It’s time to pull off the bandage and heal the patient, once and for all.

New Rule. White men are not allowed to talk about affirmative action. Not ever, unless they know what the heck they’re talking about. Most don’t. But that doesn’t stop them, of course from spouting off about a topic that they don’t fully understand. In the nearly 40 years that I’ve discussed and written about preferential treatment of college admissions, as opposed to an employment or government contracts, I’ve heard white men spin some fantastical yarns. 

Affirmative action is not “reverse discrimination” as they claim. Nor is it part of some massive conspiracy to oppress white men. Affirmative action does not amount to admitting people to college based on race or ethnicity alone. And nor is a kind of cosmic bureaucratic payback for past sins. 

Expect to hear more madness in the weeks and months to come. The Supreme Court recently heard arguments in the case, Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College. Plaintiffs accused Harvard of discriminating against Asians. Rubbish. Asians made up 25.9% of the Harvard class admitted in 2021. 

White conservatives such as radio host Hugh Hewitt, say Harvard wants to “limit the upward mobility of Asian Americans via the imposition of caps on their admission.” More rubbish. Harvard is a private institution. It’s allowed to make decisions on what it wants its student body to look like. If it decides it doesn’t want a student body that’s 70% Asian, or 70% Latino or 70% Black, for that matter, that’s fair enough. That’s its right. 

Two lower federal courts have already ruled in Harvard’s favor, and the amicus briefs submitted on the university’s behalf, included one from the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. It rejects the idea that affirmative action hurts Asians and claims that race-neutral admissions “ultimately benefits white applicants.” 

Let’s back up a beat and define affirmative action…that I should describe my personal history with the concept. Affirmative action is more than 60 years old. It was on March 6, 1961, that President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10925. It required that U.S. government contractors take “affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.”

Americans have argued about the concept ever since. Three times over the last six decades, the Supreme Court has given colleges and universities permission to take the race ethnicity of applicants into account, as long as it’s just one factor among many in the admissions process.

 In 1978, in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the justices struck down a quota at UC-Davis Medical School, but said race could be considered. In 2003, in Grutter v. Bollinger, the Court upheld the admissions policy at the University of Michigan Law School. In 2016 in Fisher v. University of Texas, the justices decided it was okay for UT-Austin to consider race and mission. 

My own personal relationship with affirmative action goes back to the fall of 1984, when I was a 17-year-old high school senior. As a Mexican-American with perfect grades and advanced placement courses, I was accepted by five elite universities, including Harvard, which I would eventually attend. This inspired white friends whose grades weren’t as good as mine, to tell me that I would not have been admitted had I not been Mexican.

For a long time I stood by affirmative action, maybe out of loyalty, but over the last 20 years, not so much. Gradually, I’ve become convinced that when applied to0 aggressively, a program that was intended to benefit Latinos and African-Americans can actually hurt them. It labels beneficiaries as unqualified, lowers academic standards, and masks the failures of the K-12 public schools to properly educate black and brown students.

Get it straight. Affirmative action is not an attack on whites and Asians. It’s a band-aid on a bullet wound. It’s time to pull off the bandage and heal the patient, once and for all.


Get unbiased straight facts, context, and perspective!