Faculty Spotlight

Anthony Chen

Clarifying Origins to Ratchet Down Debates


anthony chen
Anthony Chen 

The reactions to the April 22 Supreme Court decision upholding Michigan’s constitutional amendment on affirmative action have ranged from elated to outraged. The intense fervor evident on both sides suggests that affirmative action is just the kind of contentious issue where IPR sociologist Anthony Chen hopes his research can interject “more clarity and sober-mindedness” into public discourse.

Chen, who studies affirmative action policies and programs, points out that understanding the historical origins of such policies can help people see them more clearly and situate them in their proper context.

“This way, when people discuss views and opinions about what’s happening today, they’re really guided by an examination of what the policies are,” Chen said, “as opposed to what they hear people say the policies areor what they hear on Fox News or MSNBC.”

He is currently working on a book about the origins of affirmative action in college admissions, which follows his first book on the origins of affirmative action policies in employment. Chen, who joined Northwestern in 2010 from the University of Michigan’s faculty, began working on these issues during his doctoral program University of California, Berkeley, where he received his PhD.

Race and affirmative action in college admissions

Chen’s forthcoming book, Beyond Bakke, takes its tentative title from the landmark, 1978 Supreme Court decision upholding certain types of affirmative action. In their archival research on the project, Chen and his co-author, Lisa Stulberg of New York University, have unearthed some unexpected findings that challenge the conventional wisdom.

Previous work might give one the impression that affirmative action policies arose initially out of the social upheaval of the late 1960s—students protesting on campuses and riots exploding in American cities. “That’s not quite right,” Chen continued. “It’s part of the story, but it’s not why the earliest programs were instituted in the first place.”

Through careful analysis of university documents, including memos and correspondence from top administrators, the two researchers date the earliest affirmative action programs to the early 1960s, well before northern campuses or cities began experiencing any unrest.

These programs were launched by college administrators—who were white men of both Republican and Democratic persuasion—in what amounted to a kind of “Northern response to the Southern civil rights movement,” Chen said.

Inspired by Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, he said, they took a hard look at their own institutions and basically asked themselves, “‘Well, how are we doing? We’re not doing so well if we look more like Ole Miss than we want to. Why is that? And is there anything we can do to change that?’”

In the intervening years, affirmative action has continued to provoke discord. Each successive Supreme Court decision, such as the 2013 Fisher v. University of Texas decision, continually provides new fodder for debate.  

“There’s a lot of heat around the debate, but it gets in the way of seeing clearly exactly what policies we’re talking about, exactly what those policies do, exactly why those policies are put into place, and exactly what consequences those policies have,” Chen explained.

Fair employment practices and affirmative action

Chen’s first book, the award-winning The Fifth Freedom: Jobs, Politics, and Civil Rights in the United States, 1941–1972 (Princeton University Press, 2009), took a similar approach in focusing on affirmative action policies in employment. 

Beginning in the 1940s, decades before “affirmative action,” state and federal lawmakers debated fair employment practices (FEP) legislation, which prohibited discrimination in employment and created robust government agencies to enforce the law. Ultimately, some states adopted such laws, but Congress never really did.

Building on research by others, Chen noticed numerous and widespread instances in which the debate around FEP policies seemed very similar to those surrounding affirmative action policies.

“If you look at later affirmative action laws, they look very different, but FEP laws attracted highly comparable criticisms, including concerns about reverse discrimination and quotas,” Chen said. “One of the policy implications of this research is that whenever you introduce strong civil rights policies of any kind, they’re going to elicit severe opprobrium, even if there’s really no reason for it.”

Chen hopes his research on affirmative action in employment and in college admissions will help “clarify where these policies really come from and why they were put into place, encouraging more level-headed conversation around it today.”

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