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The Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on a pair of cases involving affirmative action, both involving college admissions – one at Harvard University in Massachusetts and the other at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Affirmative action policies became common in the 1960s and 1970s as college administrators looked to increase racial and gender diversity on their campuses, and challenges to them have taken place ever since. The first major fight came to a head in 1978, when the Supreme Court outlawed racial quotas in college admissions while saying race could still be considered as a factor.

What is the history of affirmative action in the US?

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order mandating that federal contractors “take affirmative action” to ensure applicants were hired and treated equally regardless of “race, creed, color or national origin.”

Kennedy’s measure followed longtime efforts to end segregation and widespread discrimination that had stripped generations of Black people of wealth and opportunities for job advancement, and the practice spread as corporate and other government organizations sought to right decades of lost opportunities – not just for Black people but for women and other minority communities.

Additionally, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act forbids exclusion from federally funded programs or activities on the basis of race, color or national origin while Title VII prohibits employment discrimination “based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.”

As the struggles and gains of the civil rights movement prompted national reckoning, experts say, colleges and universities began to adopt similar admission and recruitment approaches.

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Then, in 1970, an order issued by President Richard Nixon extended adjustable minority hiring goals and timetables to federal contractors to address their “underutilization;” the order was revised the following year to include women.

Is affirmative action legal across the US?

In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke that the school’s special admissions program, with slots set aside based on race alone, was unlawful. However, the court said universities could consider race as a factor when choosing among qualified applicants.

In 1979, the court ruled in United Steel Workers of America, AFL-CIO v. Weber that affirmative action efforts attempting to correct long patterns of discrimination were lawful so long as they didn’t violate the rights of white workers.

By 1995, the University of California system had voted to halt all affirmative action programs. The next year, state voters narrowly approved Proposition 209, which ended such programs in employment, education and contracting; similar measures followed in Washington and Florida.

After a Michigan ban on affirmative action in public college admissions was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2014, seven more states instituted related statutes: Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Washington.

Last year, the Supreme Court said it would take on the two cases now under discussion that challenge the ability of colleges and universities to consider race as a factor in school admissions. In heated discussions held last October, the court’s conservative majority expressed severe doubts about whether such policies were necessary.

How do Americans feel about affirmative action?

Results of a Pew Research Center survey released Thursday indicate half of all U.S. adults say they disapprove of selective colleges and universities factoring applicants’ racial and ethnic backgrounds into their admission decisions. Only a third (33%) of the nearly 5,100 people surveyed earlier this year said they approved, while roughly one in six (16%) hadn’t decided.

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Disapproval was even more pronounced along partisan lines, the survey found, with nearly three-quarters (74%) of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents saying they disapprove, compared to just 29% of Democrats. Meanwhile, 54% of Democrats and those leaning Democrat said they approved of the practice, compared to just 14% of Republicans.

The study also found notable differences between racial and ethnic groups, with nearly half (47%) of Black American adults saying they approved of institutions of higher education factoring race and ethnicity into their admissions decisions. Meanwhile, the portions of Latinos who said they either approved or didn’t approve of the practice were evenly split at 39%, while 57% of white adults and 52% of Asian adults said they did not approve.

What are the arguments for and against affirmative action?

Supporters of affirmative action say such policies are needed to combat ongoing inequities that have left certain communities historically underrepresented in schools and the workplace. Such policies also contribute to greater diversity, an effect they note is beneficial for all.

Removing such policies, they say, will ultimately decrease diversity in workplace leadership and in the boardroom.

Critics, meanwhile, say that in terms of college admissions, affirmative action programs make it harder for Asian and white students to gain entry by giving preference to Black and Latino applicants.


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