Obama administration reverses Bush policy on affirmative action

Affirmative action, the policy designed to assist historically under-represented minority groups and women with access to university admissions, has received an important boost from the Obama administration.

On Friday, the Department of Education jointly with the Department of Justice issued a new Guidance on the Voluntary use of Race to Achieve Diversity in Post-secondary Education.

The new guidelines reverse anti-affirmative action policies adopted by the Bush administration that forbad any use of “quotas”  emphasizing instead so called “race neutral solutions.”

“Post-secondary institutions can voluntarily consider race to further the compelling interest of achieving diversity,” says the guidelines.

Bush’s rule stressed limitations on the use of affirmative action. By way of contrast the Obama policy opens the door of possibility again to achieving diversity by considering race and ethnicity as one of several considerations in admissions. In this regard the New York Times writes, “The guidelines focus on the wiggle room in the court decisions.”

In place of the Bush measures, which resulted in a steep drop in minority admissions in top universities, with the new framework “the Obama administration has aligned itself strongly with the right of colleges to consider race and ethnicity in admissions decisions,” writes Inside Higher Education.

Dr. Gerald Horne, author of Reversing Discrimination: The Case for Affirmative Action,  said the Obama policy “is a step back from the precipice to which Bush (and the high court) led us. It is a significant step forward, particularly given the political constraints.”

In 2003, the Supreme Court in rulings involving the University of Michigan, rolled back the use of race and ethnicity.

Now, the Department of Education and the Justice Department say that universities seeking diversity may include consideration of high schools attended, including cases in which the class population is mostly minority, mentoring programs aimed at minority students, and high schools who partner with historically black colleges, among other factors.

While acknowledging the use of some race neutral admissions programs, the new policy  says schools need not be bound by them. “Institutions are not required to implement race-neutral approaches if, in their judgment, the approaches would be unworkable,” the guidelines argue. The document continues, “In some cases, race-neutral approaches will be unworkable because they will be ineffective to achieve the diversity the institution seeks. Institutions may also reject approaches that would require them to sacrifice a component of their educational mission or priorities (e.g., academic selectivity).”

The Supreme Court may hear a new challenge to affirmative action at the University of Texas in the spring, placing it in the middle of the presidential election campaign.

Photo: Creative Commons 2.0


Joe Sims
Joe Sims

Joe Sims is co-editor of the People's World, and loves biking.