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What is the future of affirmative action?

Twenty years ago, I had my only direct experience with racial set-asides. I won a hundred dollars in an essay contest for Latino teens. Of course, kids of any race could enter, but it was clearly aimed at Latinos. I can’t recall ever being part of another social program that was, whether stated or implied, just for Latinos.

As such, I’m still waiting for those affirmative action quotas that will rocket me to the top of any employer’s wish list. Supposedly, all I have to do is show up in an HR office, mention my last name, and sit back while all the qualified white candidates are shoved out windows to make way for me.

Of course, we all know that it doesn’t work that way. Affirmative action is not a quota system, which would be illegal. No business or university can say, “We need three more Asians, eight more Latinos, and nine fewer whites.” It doesn’t work that way, despite what you’ve heard.

Affirmative action is a big reason that America’s offices and universities are substantially more diverse than they were a few decades ago. In that regard, it is a resounding success.

However, has the time come to phase the program out, or at the very least, revise it?

Since the term “affirmative action” first appeared — in a 1961 executive order from President Kennedy — the phrase has been denigrated, misunderstood, and wielded as a political weapon.

Currently, well-funded conservative groups are making progress chipping away at the program, with the ultimate goal of eliminating it completely. Liberals seem to accept that affirmation action, if it survives at all, will not look the same.

For example, the most heavily promoted alternative version would look at economic status, rather than race or ethnicity. The idea is that lower-class whites are just as disadvantaged as poor minorities, and just as deserving of affirmative action’s focus.

Another possible revision to the program would limit the categories of people who are considered protected classes. Whether veterans or native Hawaiians get chopped out first could be fascinating to see.

And for the truly cutting edge, there is the “behavioral realist” model. This concept uses science to address subconscious prejudices, so employers can make adjustments.

Clearly, affirmative action will not last much longer in its present-day incarnation. Like so many other concepts, it will either evolve or die.

In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court more or less upheld affirmative action. Justice O’Connor famously wrote, “We expect that twenty-five years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary.” O’Connor’s prediction means we’re roughly fifteen years away from affirmative action’s total extinction.

If so, I better get going on exploiting the program. That hundred bucks I won decades ago is long gone.

About Adriana Villavicencio

Dr. Adriana Villavicencio is the youngest child of Ecuadorian immigrants. She has moved 29 times in her life, taking her on a journey from California to Bangalore, India, and New York City, where she recently earned a Ph.D. in Education Leadership and works as a Research Associate at New York University. An avid traveler, Adriana has collected experiences in four different continents and 16 different countries. But as a former high school English teacher, some of her fondest memories are those of her brilliant and brilliantly funny students in Brooklyn and Oakland. Adriana has contributed to several publications including the Daily News and, and is a managing editor for the Journal of Equity in Education. She earned a B.A. in English and an M.A. in English Education at Columbia University, and currently serves on the board of Columbia’s Latino Alumni Association (LAACU). She enjoys scary movies with red vines, Sauvignon Blanc, and her Maltese dog, Napoleon.

To learn more about Adriana’s education consulting company, please visit

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and should not be understood to be shared by Being Latino, Inc.


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