Commentary: Another Side of the Debate on Affirmative Action

New York Rep. Yvette D. Clarke on the importance of equality and justice in America.

(Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

On October 10, 2012, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, a lawsuit about the constitutionality of the affirmative action programs in which colleges and universities consider the race of applicants in an effort to maintain diversity.

For several decades, the debate about affirmative action has been dominated by conservatives who have divided this nation by claiming that some people are "winners" and other people are "losers" under any such program. Generations of Republican politicians and their campaign managers have used the issue to develop resentment toward racial minorities.

We need to have other voices in the conversation — voices that explain the importance of affirmative action for every student and for our society as a whole. The leaders of our corporations, our institutions of higher education, and our military know from their experience the importance of diversity in our classrooms.

In 2003, the Supreme Court held in Grutter v. Bollinger that public colleges and universities could consider the race of applicants in selecting a class of students with the diversity to succeed in the modern world. A brief submitted to the Supreme Court by several large corporations explained that students could develop "the skills needed in today's increasingly global marketplace" only through interactions inside and outside the classroom with "widely diverse people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints."

Leaders of our military, such as General Wesley Clark and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, submitted a brief in Grutter which stated that the recruitment of a diverse class of officers at our nation's military academies, such as the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, was necessary to fulfill the military's "principle mission to provide national security."

For our leaders in business and the military, the benefits of affirmative action are obvious. To compete with students from around the world, our students must have the opportunity to interact with people whose experiences are different from their own. Students educated in classrooms that are diverse will have the resources — social and intellectual — to become full participants in our civil society and its economy.

But in Fisher, the Supreme Court has been asked to reexamine the determination that colleges and universities have the ability to consider the race of applicants, with several other factors, in admissions. This determination has been the law in the United States for more than 30 years.

A reversal of the Supreme Court's precedents on affirmative action would undermine the efforts of college administrators to select a class of students that has the ability — as a result of diversity — to excel in the world beyond the classroom. We must continue forward, not backward. As Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote, "Unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together."

U. S. Rep. Yvette D. Clarke (D-N.Y.) has represented New York's Ninth Congressional District since 2007. She currently serves on the Homeland Security and Small Business Committees. 
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