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The application of affirmative action has become less and less prevalent since the practice was put into place in 1961 by JFK.

Many universities across the U.S. have begun moving away from race-based affirmative action and toward a purely meritocratic and need-based admission system. While this is indicative of the strides made for equality in the U.S., these schools have prematurely abandoned it. The need for programs like affirmative action is still prevalent and overall, they’re a net-positive for society.  

Affirmative action is the promotion of people who have experienced hardship — poor economic status or social adversity — in admission to universities and workplace positions. It was first established in the U.S. when former President John Kennedy ordered federal contractors in 1961 to “take affirmative action to ensure applicants are treated equally without regard to race, color, religion, sex or national origin.” Shortly after Kennedy’s assassination, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed under his presidential successor, Lyndon Johnson, which expanded Kennedy’s 1961 executive order to all businesses. 

By 1978, affirmative action expanded outside of business and government and into academia. This resulted in the landmark Supreme Court case, The Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, wherein Allan Bakke was denied admission to the University of California Davis Medical School. The medical school offered 100 seats for the incoming class, 16 of which were reserved for minority students. Bakke’s challenge of the constitutionality of UC Davis' affirmative action program was struck down as the court upheld affirmative action. 

The concept of affirmative action has changed over time and has become more focused. While affirmative action was initially used as a means to ensure equality in the admissions process, it soon evolved into a mechanism to compensate for unequal opportunity afforded to diverse populations. In the original language of Kennedy’s 1961 executive order, he suggested that race, gender or any other condition shouldn’t be a consideration in evaluating the ability of someone entering academia or professional settings. This notion is also reflected in Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech wherein he describes a future where people are judged by their character instead of race. However, race quickly became a focal point of affirmative action, and justifiably so.   

The gap in realized equality between varying races in the U.S. has become smaller in the years following the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, and the application of affirmative action reflects that. Shifts toward addressing a more persistent societal issue, that of wealth inequality, through affirmative action has taken hold recently. More specifically, as it’s applied in academia, this bridging of the gap is demonstrated by studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Education in 2018. According to the National Center for Education Statistics under the U.S. Department of Education, the change of the white-Black gap in reading examination scores from 1992-2017 was six points, 32 to 26, and in mathematics examinations, it was 32 to 25. 

Admissions at both JMU and its Honors College are indicative of academia’s schism surrounding the state of affirmative action. Many universities boast hearty affirmative action programs, while others, such as JMU, claim to be blind to factors such as race and economic status, both of which harbor compelling arguments about their validity.  

Dr. Fawn-Amber Montoya is the associate dean for Diversity, Inclusion and External Engagement at JMU’s Honors College. Montoya detailed how the Honors College is accommodating diversity and that affirmative action is no longer used to describe them.

“Honors College’s students aren’t always traditionally high achieving,” Montoya said. “The Honors College looks for diversity and experience through the essay requirements in the application.”

Montoya said the Honors College doesn’t take into account standardized test scores, considering how diverse populations tend to perform worse on them and how the various tracks to admission opens doors to people who might not have had the experience or academic pedigree coming directly out of high school. She also said the Honors College is promoting diversity in academic disciplines through initiatives such as widening the scope of capstone projects, which consist of an extensive thesis or portfolio.

“The expansion of capstone projects to include minors allows students minoring in African American Studies, for example, or other minors without corresponding majors, to complete their capstone project in those areas,” Montoya said.

The Honors College does, however, consider GPA even though Black and hispanic students tend to have lower GPAs when compared to white and Asian students. Forgoing a review of a student’s background, including factors such as race, gender and economics, forces students from diverse backgrounds to focus on these aspects of their lives in their application essays as opposed to other more compelling achievements and experiences if they want a competitive edge in admission. Therefore, students from impoverished communities with little opportunities to demonstrate or develop their potential are essentially out of consideration. 

Since the U.S. has yet to completely bridge the gap between academic achievement in various races, race-based affirmative action should still be a priority. However, emphasis on economic-based affirmative action should be just as important considering how wealth inequality is the underlying factor contributing to unequal academic achievement. Though economic-based affirmative action hasn’t eclipsed race-based affirmative action yet in its application, in an optimistic future regarding race equality in the U.S., one day, it will. Further yet, perhaps affirmative action will be altogether abandoned accompanying the advent of total social and economic equality.

Contact Evan Weaver at weavereh@dukes.jmu.eduEvan is a sophomore English major.