Affirmative Action Overruled
BY VAISHNAVI MURTHY '24
As fall rolls around and the stress of college applications fills the air, many AB seniors are embarking on the harrowing process of trying to crack college admissions. The Common Application requests countless data nuggets, culminating in a representation of the applicant—but should race continue to be included in the list of GPAs, standardized test scores, and awards? According to a landmark decision by the Supreme Court in late June, race-conscious admissions, known as affirmative action, are unconstitutional. Affirmative action is a policy that aims to address discrimination in college admissions by giving special consideration to marginalized groups. Both those in support and in opposition of this ruling seek fairness in the college admissions process, but under different interpretations of what fairness means.
Leading up to the Supreme Court decision, the case began when the advocacy group Students for Fair Admissions filed a lawsuit against two elite schools, Harvard and UNC Chapel Hill, for discriminating in college admissions. Specifically, they argued that Asian American and White students with otherwise qualifying academic traits were denied admission to prestigious institutions due to their race. In a 6-3 majority, the Supreme Court overruled legal precedent, meaning it overturned one of its own prior decisions. The dissenters were Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ketanji Brown Jackson. Statistics collected show that 50% of adults approve of the ruling, 33% disapprove, and 16% are unsure where they stand (Pew Research). Generally speaking, Democrats tend to oppose the ruling, while Republicans support the ruling. In essence, the majority opinion states that universities are overemphasizing race in the identity of the individual and that under a colorblind constitution, college admissions should be colorblind as well. The dissenting opinion states that it is unfair to assume college admissions can be colorblind when society itself is not colorblind.
Affirmative action was first used in 1961 in response to America’s long history of systemic inequality. President John F. Kennedy instituted this race conscious process primarily for employment. In 1978, when a White man named Allan Bakke claimed he was a victim of discrimination due to the UC Medical school quota system for minority candidates, the Supreme court simultaneously outlawed quotas while upholding affirmative action in universities. Quota systems and affirmative action are not the same; while quota systems specifically reserve an exact number of spots for minorities, affirmative action simply considers race as one of many other factors. Before affirmative action existed, colleges filtered students purely through statistics, such as test scores and GPA. While merits are certainly important, systemic racism cannot be ignored. Living in a stable economic environment or being able to afford tutoring play a large role in how students score on standardized exams. There are always exceptions, but generally speaking, resources are important for scoring well. For example, historically, housing discrimination has led to an unproportionally high percentage of Black and Brown communities living below the poverty line. Hand in hand with low funded communities comes poor elementary, middle and high school systems. Through data tracking of future income and careers, the Wall Street Journal claims that students admitted to highly selective schools on the basis of race-based affirmative action experience educational value that they would otherwise not have access to.
There is no doubt that diversity in admissions will decrease after the recent affirmative action decision, as affirmative action was the most direct approach to mindfully admit students from marginalized communities, often Black and Latinx ones. Many experts are looking at the University of California system as an example. In 1996, affirmative action was banned in California, and over the next two years, the percentage of Black students dropped from 7% to 3.43%. After outreach to low income communities, the percentage of Black students rose to 5% by 2022 (New York Times). Some see this example as proof that schools will adjust to new circumstances over time and as a testament to the effectiveness of considering race-neutral factors. To others, however, the gap between 7% and 5% is concerning, and the time it takes to see those results proves the ineffectiveness of race neutral factors compared to affirmative action. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is encouraging a “Diversity No Matter What'' pledge, which essentially consists of various methods to promote diversity under the new race-neutral guidelines. These include promoting outreach and scholarships, diversifying staff, and eliminating biased testing.
Those upset about the recent affirmative action ruling cite persisting injustices, wondering why affirmative action receives so much attention when legacy admissions exist. They argue that under affirmative action student credentials are still valued, but legacy admissions offer acceptance regardless of merits. Legacy admissions are the practice where colleges especially consider children of alumni. This practice once again disadvantages minorities and low income students, as most individuals with a generational history of attending American universities are wealthy, White, and non-immigrant students. A student from the richest 1% of families is twice as likely to be accepted into a prestigious institution as a student from the middle class with the same academic merits (NPR). In response to the affirmative action decision, advocacy group Lawyers for Civil Rights filed a lawsuit against Harvard regarding legacy admissions, claiming they violate the Civil Rights Act (BBC). Another inconsistency pointed out is that military academies are exempt from the affirmative action ruling as they were not a party in the case. Justice Roberts claimed that national security is a “distinct interest,” implying that preserving higher diversity is more important in that field (CBS).
In future considerations, the Supreme Court may affect more than college admissions. In the context of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts, many are worried that when a case regarding DEI in the workplace reaches the Supreme Court, it will be easily overturned using the same reasoning as the college admissions case: violation of the Equal Protections Clause, which states that all citizens are treated equally under the Constitution. In the larger context of American legal precedent, the Supreme Court has reversed two of its largest cases in the past two years, between abortion and affirmative action, leading people to wonder what types of cases the Supreme Court will focus on in the coming years.