a1 Kennedy School and Departments of African and African American Studies and Sociology, Harvard University
I first discuss the Obama administration's efforts to promote racial diversity on college campuses in the face of recent court challenges to affirmative action. I then analyze opposition in this country to “racial preferences” as a way to overcome inequality. I follow that with a discussion of why class-based affirmative action, as a response to cries from conservatives to abolish “racial preferences,” would not be an adequate substitute for race-based affirmative action. Instead of class-based affirmative action, I present an argument for opportunity enhancing affirmative action programs that rely on flexible, merit-based criteria of evaluation as opposed to numerical guidelines or quotas. Using the term “affirmative opportunity” to describe such programs, I illustrate their application with three cases: the University of California, Irvine's revised affirmative action admissions procedure; the University of Michigan Law School's affirmative action program, which was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2003; and the hiring and promotion of faculty of color at colleges and universities as seen in how I myself benefited from a type of affirmative action based on flexible merit-based criteria at the University of Chicago in the early 1970s. I conclude by relating affirmative opportunity programs for people of color to the important principle of “equality of life chances.”
(Online publication June 07 2012)
William Julius Wilson is Geyser University Professor at Harvard University. He is a recipient of the 1998 National Medal of Science, and was awarded the Talcott Parsons Prize in the Social Sciences by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2003. Past President of the American Sociological Association, Wilson has received forty-two honorary degrees, including honorary doctorates from Princeton, Columbia, University of Pennsylvania, Northwestern, Johns Hopkins, Dartmouth, New York University, and the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. A MacArthur Prize Fellow from 1987 to 1992, Wilson has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the National Academy of Education, the Institute of Medicine, and the British Academy.