HomeLearning CenterIf the Supreme Court Abolishes Affirmative Action, Here’s What Women Need to Do

If the Supreme Court Abolishes Affirmative Action, Here’s What Women Need to Do

Originally published by Shira A. Scheindlin for The New York Times

Any day now the Supreme Court will decide two cases that will determine the future of affirmative action — one involving race-conscious admissions at the University of North Carolina and a companion case involving Harvard.

Although debates around affirmative action have typically focused on people of color, the policy has also applied to gender, and women have been among affirmative action’s greatest beneficiaries. Now, after decades of allowing these programs in college admissions, the Supreme Court appears poised to weaken or dismantle efforts to make higher education more available to members of historically underrepresented minority groups.

As a successful white woman who served for many years as a judge for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, I feel it is incumbent upon me and other white women in my generation to reaffirm the policies that helped us secure our positions in political institutions, academia, business, medicine and law. If the Supreme Court overturns or neuters this well-settled law, every one of us who proudly bore the title “the first woman” must work to ensure underrepresented communities maintain access to elite educational institutions.

Opponents of affirmative action suggest that it is no longer needed because the United States has reached the stage where everyone is treated equally. This is simply, and unfortunately, not the case. People of color are woefully underrepresented in many classrooms and careers. As only one example, Black lawyers make up only 2.2 percent of law firm partners, according to a 2021 National Association of Law Placement report, with Black and Latino women at less than 1 percent.

Opponents also falsely claim that students of color are being admitted to fill racial quotas, depriving white students of the chance to obtain a coveted spot. But affirmative action, as practiced today, does not discriminate against one group in favor of another.

Rather it considers race as one factor among many to put the applicant’s experiences in context. Courts have repeatedly held that a holistic admissions process — which includes letters of recommendation, guidance counselor reviews, extracurricular activities, alumni interviewer impressions, essays and academic performance — ensures that all of an applicant’s experiences and characteristics are considered.

Affirmative action policies, whether legally mandated or voluntary, have proven overwhelmingly effective in helping historically marginalized groups gain a higher education, and thus achieve the success that flowed from that education. For example, because colleges and universities (including those that were formerly all-male) made a concerted effort to recruit women, today women are now much more likely than men to graduate from college. By 2019, women outnumbered men in the college-educated labor force. People of color are entitled to these same opportunities, based at least in part on their historical exclusion.

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