3 views on whether US still needs affirmative action

This November, voters in Oklahoma will consider a ballot measure banning affirmative action in public-sector hiring. And in October, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in the Fisher v. University of Texas case – centered on the use of affirmative action in public-university admissions. As the second installment in our One Minute Debate series for election 2012, three writers give their brief take on whether the United States still needs affirmative action.

The 'yes' case is argued by Courtney Bowie, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberty Union's Racial Justice Program. The 'no' position is taken by Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, and Joshua Thompson, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation. And 'a middle way' is suggested by Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation.

1.Yes: We can't have race-neutral hiring and admissions because society isn't race-neutral

University of Michigan student Ebrie Benton demonstrates outside the Federal courthouse in Cincinnati March 7, where the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals was hearing oral arguments on their ruling that the ban on affirmative action in Michigan is unconstitutional. (Al Behrman/AP)

This fall, affirmative action will be on the Oklahoma state ballot, and the Supreme Court will hear the case Fisher v. University of Texas, in which the plaintiff claims the use of race as one factor for admissions is unfair to white applicants. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a brief supporting the university. With America's history of racial discrimination and persistent inequities, it is dishonest to argue that a system that ignores race is somehow race-neutral.

While we strive for a race-neutral world, we live in one in which most institutions – schools, boardrooms, neighborhoods – have a largely homogenous racial identity. Without affirmative policies to address the past and current injustices that cause and perpetuate this segregation, the situation will not change. Eliminating these inequalities will take time and require a ground-up transition, of which affirmative action is but one element.

If the plaintiffs prevail in their quest for race neutrality, and America does not proactively address and eliminate the current racial disparities, this inequality will simply be perpetuated.

In 1996, California and, for approximately seven years beginning in 1997, Texas discontinued the use of race as a factor in public university admissions. Their universities again became predominantly white, largely depriving all students of the benefit of diversity. But universities must be allowed to consider race as a factor in admissions because having diversity at these institutions is a compelling state interest.

A nation that creates equal opportunities for all citizens is stronger, more tolerant, and more productive. America also needs diverse leaders, and affirmative action ensures these leaders have a chance to emerge – by cultivating them in classrooms, workplaces, and beyond.

We cannot have race-neutral admission and employment policies because, unfortunately, America is not yet a race-neutral society.

Courtney Bowie is a senior staff attorney with the ACLU's Racial Justice Program. Before joining the ACLU, Ms. Bowie was an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

No: Racial discrimination is unfair to applicants and compromises quality at institutions.

It is very odd to ask, in 2012, whether it is a good or a bad idea for government to treat people differently – to discriminate against some and give preferential treatment to others – on the basis of skin color or ancestry. But this fall, that question is coming to Oklahoma's state ballot and before the Supreme Court.

America is growing more and more racially diverse. Do traditional racial categories still make sense? Why lump all people of Vietnamese, Filipino, and Japanese ancestry under one broad stereotype – Asian – and treat them differently from individuals labeled Latino, who may be Mexican, Peruvian, or Cuban? The groupings become even more perverse when government tries to pigeonhole multiracial individuals into one ethnic category.

In the past 10 years, Americans who identify themselves as belonging to "two or more races" have increased 32 percent. There are now more "minority" babies than "nonminority" babies being born. Should an individual that is 1/32 native American be hired over one who is 1/4 Asian, 1/4 black, and 1/2 Caucasian?

Proponents of racial preferences in university admissions claim they are justified because of the "educational benefits" of "diversity." But evidence shows that, not only is there little or no benefit, but the costs are substantial – including the costs to African-Americans and Latinos who are "mismatched" with their schools and thus set up to fail.

Racial discrimination is unfair to applicants, compromises on quality for the institutions and people they serve, is divisive, and violates the Constitution and civil rights laws. The civil rights movement's great accomplishment was to spotlight the evil of stereotyping according to race. In a society as diverse as ours, the only tenable system is one that treats everyone as an individual.

Roger Clegg is president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity. Joshua Thompson is an attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation. Both groups filed an amicus brief in the Fisher v. University of Texas case.

A middle way: Use affirmative action to help economically disadvantaged students of all races.

Many Americans are torn about the coming Supreme Court arguments over affirmative action (Fisher v. University of Texas). On the one hand, they want colleges to be racially and ethnically diverse and acknowledge that America's history of mistreatment of minorities requires affirmative steps. On the other hand, polls suggest Americans don't like the idea of counting a student's skin color in deciding who gets ahead. Is there a way out?

Almost 50 years ago, in his book "Why We Can't Wait," Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. proposed a third path: a leg up for economically disadvantaged people of all races. Today, even more than when King wrote about it, poverty is the biggest impediment to equality of opportunity. A 2010 Century Foundation study found that socioeconomic disadvantages are seven times as large as racial obstacles in predicting student SAT scores, which helps explain why there are 25 times as many rich kids as poor kids on the nation's selective campuses.

A system of affirmative action in colleges that provides a leg up to economically disadvantaged students of all races, if well structured, can produce substantial racial diversity without resorting to the use of racial preferences that so many Americans find objectionable.

Colleges could admit academically capable "strivers," students whose grades and test scores are somewhat lower on paper but whose achievement is remarkable given the obstacles they overcame. Research finds that such students can do well at highly selective colleges. One study found that a meritocratic admission policy that also considers economic disadvantages could increase the proportion of students from the bottom economic half at selective colleges from 10 percent currently to 38 percent, and graduation rates would remain as high as they are today.

This system would grapple with America's greatest source of inequality: the growing gap between rich and poor.

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, is author of "The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action" and editor of "Rewarding Strivers: Helping Low-Income Students Succeed in College."