The death of affirmative action in higher education has been inevitable since its inception. High-profile victories in the U.S. Supreme Court granted stays of execution, but recent developments have all but doomed the practice.
In 1978, the Court ruled hard racial quotas unconstitutional in higher education yet allowed schools to consider race in Regents of the University of California v. Allan Bakke. In 2003, the Court decided that considering race was constitutional in Grutter v. Bollinger but not in Gratz v. Bollinger, as the University of Michigan didn’t narrowly tailor the application in the latter case.
The death of affirmative action has been discussed and hypothesized as a when more than an if. For example, in the Grutter v. Bolinger opinion, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor predicted: “We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.”
The Supreme Court will hear arguments on Halloween in cases regarding affirmative action from Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. With the Court’s conservative lean, they may strike down or severely constrict and restrict similar affirmative action policies nationwide.
This iteration of the Roberts Court has been relatively cavalier about making sweeping changes to the legal landscape, cries of judicial overreach be damned. There is a risk that this ruling could spell disaster for any policy that considers race, gender, or sexual orientation in decision-making. However, I would welcome the verdict if this ruling is reserved and strikes down just race-based affirmative action in college admissions.
Affirmative action has been rechallenged time and time again in cases like UC v. Bakke, Grutter v. Bollinger, Gratz v. Bollinger, and Fisher v. Texas. Even when the judiciary protects affirmative action, the rulings often impose restrictions. Admissions can not be strictly race-based. There must be no race-neutral alternatives that could achieve the same result. The school must precisely tailor the policy to serve a compelling governmental interest.
It’s also important to note that only some colleges consider an applicant’s race in the admissions process. All schools don’t utilize holistic review methods that consider race in admissions decisions. The controversy that race-conscious admissions can bring (see: all of the lawsuits) act as a deterrent. Mainly elite institutions practice them, ones with enough stellar applicants to sort by race while maintaining a gifted class (and enough funds and lawyers to deal with legal action).
Adam Harris writing for The Atlantic put it best. “Today, race-conscious admissions policies are weak, and used by only a smattering of the most highly selective programs.”
Yet as we can see from the prevalence of court cases and controversies, affirmative action is still a loaded concept. Some people believe it gives an unfair advantage to Black students. One so powerful qualified white and Asian students get passed over. That idea that the race of Black college students gave them a strong advantage leads to the belief that Black students didn’t have to work hard to get into good schools. People evoke affirmative action to discredit and dismiss Black students who attend good colleges, assuming they only/mainly got accepted because of their race. If they just were Black, it would be so much easier to get into a good school.
Affirmative action policies only exist at highly competitive universities. They provide only a weak advantage, meaning the only students they help would have great academic careers at other great universities without it. Their existence can cast doubt on the achievements of Black students and foster resentment from non-Black students. Race-based affirmative action policies have been whittled down to near futility. The only profound impact of their continued existence is negative for minority students: that being the disdain they can breed.
I have seen the difference in resources available to white students who disproportionately have higher family incomes than Black and Hispanic students who don’t. I have met people who have felt unwelcome in specific academic spaces because of their gender or sexual orientation. I am a Black college applicant in North Carolina, and arguments in this case will be made on my birthday. This issue is a tinge personal for me. However, the current state of affirmative action in college admissions is a failed one and needs to be rebuilt. If that rebuilding has to start with the deconstruction of the system as is, then so be it.
It’s in all of our best interests for race-based affirmative action in college admissions to be laid to rest. It’s also in our best interest to ensure colleges install new systems in its place so they can provide a college admissions process fair for all.