Alexander Jones: Affirmative action strengthens higher education

Published 11:58 pm Wednesday, February 16, 2022

By Alexander H. Jones

The guts of the college admissions process are distasteful.

Whatever else may be said of the pending case on UNC’s race-conscious admissions policies, it’s clear that reducing a young person’s profile solely to their ethnicity should be abhorrent to all thinking Americans. But equally objectionable is to deny that race is central to a person’s place in America today. Much of America imagines itself to be race-blind when it divvies up the fruits of opportunity, but even the slightest honest look at the real world tells us this is just not the case.

Universities should incorporate awareness of the enduring structural racism in our society into their approach for selecting the students they accept from a multi-racial pool of applicants.

Both the University of North Carolina and Harvard University currently find themselves before the U.S. Supreme Court in a case challenging their race-conscious admissions policies. Plaintiffs charge that Harvard and UNC discriminate against Asian-Americans by giving special consideration to the racial backgrounds of traditionally excluded Black and Hispanic students. In a narrow sense, it is true that admitting more Blacks and Latinos tends to come at the expense of Asian applicants. But this unfairness comes at the crossroads of centuries of systematic exclusion and injustice foisted upon Blacks and Hispanics, creating institutions that do not reflect the diversity of America and often foster cultures that are alienating or even harmful to those historically excluded. And the main opponents of affirmative action continue to be white conservatives.

All Americans — Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American and otherwise — have an interest in rectifying our country’s history of exclusion. As long as our institutions bear the scars of racism and other forms of systemic bigotry, a large portion of our fellow Americans will remain alienated from the institutions that form the backbone of our common life. Inclusivity is not just about personal opportunity; it is about institutional legitimacy and social cohesion. We reasonably expect corporations and the federal bench to “look like America.” Higher education should not be the exception from this expectation just because affirmative action results in some applicants with higher test scores being rejected, while others with slightly lower grades gain acceptance due to diversity considerations.

Diversity is a blessing, perhaps the central blessing, of a true college education. Because of our country’s rigid residential and educational segregation, most elite college students come to their universities having spent most of their lives around people like themselves. Sitting in a college seminar with people from dramatically different backgrounds opens and fertilizes a student’s mind. Ideas do not flow inexorably from identity, but perspective and life experiences shape where people are coming from when they contribute their thoughts to a class discussion. This exposure to new people and new ideas, not “indoctrination,” is why higher education has a liberalizing effect.

UNC is a much stronger university now than it was when African Americans and women were excluded from campus. Even in the 1930s, when campus life sparkled with the genius of Frank Graham and Howard Odum, a full majority of the state’s population was denied the opportunity to add their wisdom to the gurgling intellectual stew of UNC. This was not only a social injustice but an impoverishment of intellectual life on a campus that was beginning to take hold as the crown jewel of North Carolina. Affirmative action strengthens higher education in America.

Alexander H. Jones is a policy analyst with Carolina Forward. He lives in Chapel Hill. Have feedback? Reach him at