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From "Open Doors" to Fisher

Understanding race-conscious affirmative action


1968 - James Sweet Photos
1968 - James Sweet Photos

As the Supreme Court contemplates Fisher v. University of Texas, which is challenging the use of race in college admissions, affirmative action is once again in the public eye.

Ongoing research by IPR sociologist Anthony Chen and sociologist Lisa Stulberg of New York University is filling out our understanding of how race-conscious affirmative action programs came to be instituted. The researchers have unearthed some unexpected findings, challenging major aspects of the conventional wisdom.

Current historical accounts tend to highlight the role of urban and campus disorder in the late 1960s. Race-conscious affirmative action is often seen as a “steam valve,” installed to relieve a massive buildup of social discontent. That discontent is thought to have found expression in urban riots of the kind that tore apart cities like Detroit or Newark in 1967 and student protests that wracked college campuses in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968.

Chen and Stulberg decided to dig into university archives around the country to find out whether the conventional wisdom was right. They found that it captured only a part of the truth.

“It’s not that urban riots or students protests are totally irrelevant to the story,” Chen said. “They did matter, especially in the case of the most exclusive and selective colleges and universities in the North.”

But riots and protests did not lead to the initial establishment of affirmative action programs at many other schools outside the South.

“What they often did was encourage college administrators to accelerate the development of earlier affirmative action programs that were already in place,” Chen explained.

These now-forgotten programs—which Chen and Stulberg call the “first wave” of affirmative action—actually got their start in the early 1960s. They appeared under the leadership of administrators who were moved by the nonviolent protests of the civil rights movement against Jim Crow segregation. These university presidents, provosts, and deans, who headed up schools based in the North, sought to imagine new ways that their own institutions might go beyond the well-intentioned but unsuccessful “open door” policies of the 1950s.

Anthony Chen
Anthony Chen
Their deliberations led to programs that sent college recruiters to predominantly minority high schools in nearby urban neighborhoods. The new programs also permitted slightly more flexible evaluations of the resulting applicants’ academic abilities than in the past.

“The key year for the advent of race-conscious affirmative action in college admissions was not 1967 or 1968, but 1963, when the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. took to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to share his dream with his fellow Americans,” Chen said.

Chen notes that the design of and rationale for race-conscious affirmative action programs have changed since their earliest days. But he suggests that knowing about “first wave” programs is still important today.

“As we await the outcome of Fisher, it is worth remaining mindful that today’s race-conscious programs are quite different than the type of programs struck down by the court in years past, especially the more aggressive ones that were in place in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Today’s programs are similar in spirit to the more modest programs of the ‘first wave,’ which our research suggests are an important but overlooked legacy of the civil rights movement.”

Their book is under contract with Princeton University Press.

Anthony Chen is associate professor of sociology and an IPR fellow.

Photo: Students stage a sit-in at Northwestern, 1968. Courtesy of Northwestern University Archives.