The Supreme Court recently heard arguments from Harvard and the University of North Carolina about using race and ethnicity in admissions policies. At stake is the fate of affirmative action and the positive effects that race-conscious policies have had on higher education and the workplace for more than 50 years.
Most of us agree that no matter our gender, race or ethnicity, we all deserve a fair shot in life. But for historical and current reasons, far too many Americans are denied this chance simply because of the color of their skin.
Most African American, Latinx and Indigenous Americans attended segregated public schools for generations. Many were formally barred from higher education altogether. Even today, students of color are much likelier to attend underfunded schools. And standardized testing scores, widely used to determine college admissions, run significantly lower for students who face these obstacles.
Affirmative action helps level this playing field — which may be why some political activists want to destroy it.
Both Supreme Court cases were brought by the conservative activist Edward Blum and his group Students for Fair Admissions, a right-wing political organization. Students for Fair Admissions allege that race-conscious admissions policies discriminate against Asian American and white students.
Make no mistake: Their suit is really about preserving white supremacy.
Asian-American organizations have accused Students for Fair Admissions of exploiting the false trope of Asian Americans as “the model minority” in their ideological bid to end campus diversity. These conservative activists, they say, have lumped a hugely diverse population into a fictitious monolith, relying on a racist myth that deserving Asian Americans are denied elite educations because of undeserving Black and Latinx applicants.
Tellingly, the group’s court filings include no testimony from allegedly affected Asian Americans, Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund director Bethany Li points out. Her group submitted an amicus brief pointing out that affirmative action, far from hurting Asian American students, actually benefits them. Overturning affirmative action, the group told the court, “would benefit only white applicants.”
Most Asian Americans agree: In public opinion surveys, nearly 70 percent support affirmative action policies.
Students for Fair Admissions, funded by right-wing political foundations, has previously lost this fight against Harvard. In 2020, U.S. District Court Judge Allison Burroughs and the Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit found that contrary to the group’s allegations, Harvard does not discriminate against Asian Americans — who are 6 percent of high school graduates but were 25 percent of Harvard’s 2020 class.
The group’s real goal is to end policies that have helped all communities of color get a fair shot.
After all, we know what happens when affirmative race-conscious policies are prohibited. In California and Michigan, ballot measures have been passed that ban the use of affirmative action admission policies in their state public colleges and universities. In their wake, the admission of Black and Latinx students plummeted.
According to expert testimony in the Harvard case, Black student enrollment at Harvard would decrease by more than half and Latinx enrollment would fall by a quarter if affirmative action policies were overturned.
The truth is, ensuring equality for students regardless of race sometimes means considering race explicitly. Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson perhaps put it best, posing this scenario to the lawyers for Students for a Fair Society.
Two students apply to the University of North Carolina.
The first writes an admissions essay saying that his family has lived in North Carolina since before the Civil War. He wants to honor his family’s legacy as a member of the fifth generation to attend the University of North Carolina.
The second applicant also writes about the importance of attending the school because his family has lived in North Carolina since before the Civil War. But his ancestors were enslaved in the state and barred from attending the university.
The anti-affirmative action argument, Jackson says, would allow universities to consider the first applicant’s story in making an admissions decision — but would prohibit the second. Most of us can see how using “race-blind” criteria would lead to more discrimination, not less.
Ensuring fairness and equal opportunity for all requires considering race as one factor among many in college admissions. To do otherwise would perpetuate the race-based discrimination that we, as a nation, have spent centuries trying to overcome.