At a time when private and public institutions of higher education are reassessing their admissions policies in light of new economic conditions, Affirmative Action for the Future is a clarion call for the need to keep the door of opportunity open. In 2003, U.S. Supreme Court's Grutter and Gratz decisions vindicated the University of Michigan Law School's affirmative action program while striking down the particular affirmative action program used for undergraduates at the university. In 2006 and 2008, state referendums banned affirmative action in some states while upholding it in others. Taking these developments into account, James P. Sterba draws on his vast experience as a champion of affirmative action to mount a new moral and legal defense of the practice as a useful tool for social reform.
Sterba documents the level of racial and sexual discrimination that still exists in the United States and then, arguing that diversity is a public good, he calls for expansion of the reach of affirmative action as a mechanism for encouraging true diversity. In his view, we must include in our understanding of affirmative action the need to favor those who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, regardless of race and sex. Elite colleges and universities could best facilitate opportunities for students from working-class and poor families, in Sterba's view, by cutting back on legacy and athletic preferences that overwhelmingly benefit wealthy white applicants.