“We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary,” said Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action.
The 2003 ruling is one of many in a series of Supreme Court decisions beginning in 1978 that decided that race could be a factor in college admissions. While O’Connor may not have envisioned race-based admissions being a long term solution, today, colleges around the country continue to consider the race of their applicants in order to provide educational opportunities to previously underrepresented groups.
However, short of O’Connor’s 25-year mark of termination, affirmative action suddenly stands on shaky ground.
The Supreme Court announced on Monday it would hear two cases brought forward by Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) on race-based admissions. SFFA — a nonprofit organization committed to ending affirmative action — alleged Harvard University and University of North Carolina’s admission policies harmfully discriminated against Asian Americans.
Although affirmative action has been upheld by over 40 years of legal precedent, this year it will be tested on a majority conservative court that seems determined to reassess thorny legal issues. Given the conservative tendency to uphold individual rights — except, perhaps, when it comes to a woman’s right to choose what to do with her body — it is no surprise the majority of the right believes an individual’s right to a completely merit-based application decision overrides the collective good of increased diversity in higher education.
Accordingly, conservative journalists have rushed to their keyboards to herald the imminent “Chance to Remove Race From College Admissions,” eager at the likely prospect of a Trump-appointee-saturated court overturning affirmative action.
To be fair, colleges have a lot to answer for in terms of questionable actions they take as part of affirmative action. At Harvard, for example, in order to receive an invitation to apply, a Black student needed to receive a 1100 on the SAT while a white student student required a 1310. For Asian students, the number shot up to 1350 for females and 1380 for males.
From discriminatory testing criteria to strategic placements of people of color on college pamphlets, it seems that for many schools, race-based admissions means filling a quota and setting up restrictive metrics, rather than trying to uplift underrepresented communities in a holistic way.
But that’s not to say affirmative action is completely unhelpful. For students around the nation who do not have access to the same quality of schooling, a consideration of their racial or socio-economic background is vital to ensuring their access to higher education. Over the past few years, affirmative action has undoubtedly led to increased diversity on college campuses — something which benefits not only minority students but everyone in an academic setting.
If SFFA founder Edward Blum and his anti-affirmative action activists get their wish — and race is negated from the admissions process — universities may once again start to resemble the days of varsity jackets and old boys clubs, as representation dwindles to abysmal levels.
SFFA and other organizations like them have been fighting passionately for over 50 years for this reality. Their dedication is admirable, but impassioned arguments for an end to the “sordid business” of “divvying us up by race” and equality in college admissions ring hollow when the concept of a legacy still exists.
Why is being cognizant of a qualified applicant’s race in order to offer them the life-changing benefits of higher education so offensive when daddy’s Harvard diploma still makes you three times more likely to be accepted to his alma mater? Is affirmative action really the biggest threat to the values of higher education when celebrities are paying thousands of dollars for their unqualified children to gain acceptance?
The rich already have affirmative action. It seems like it’s only a problem when other groups stand to gain from it, and the mechanism lowers chances of acceptance for stereotypically privileged groups.
Using race as a factor for admissions is far from the perfect solution to the problems of educational inequality and underrepresentation facing our country. That being said, getting rid of affirmative action will have disastrous effects for students who can’t afford SAT tutors and attend prep schools. What little diversity colleges have been able to foster must be sustained.
Whichever way the Supreme Court decides, the impending conservative dissection of affirmative action has one good effect— it has forced us to rethink this country’s solutions for systemic inequality. Perhaps it’s time to retire filling quotas and flashing pie charts of a student body’s perfectly-tailored racial makeup. Holding a genuine interest in fostering diversity, colleges and institutions beyond must make a sincere effort to uplift underrepresented groups and dismantle barriers to success.