Affirmative action policies are not the enemy


Hope Berge

SCOTUS is expected to rule affirmative action unconstitutional in June 2023.

Carmela Cadja, design editor

This June, the Supreme Court will rule on two cases regarding the use of affirmative action in college admissions—Students for Fair Admissions v. President & Fellows of Harvard College and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina—and the practice will potentially be deemed unconstitutional. Similar to its June 2022 decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, the conservative majority can once again reverse years of progress, which would negatively impact marginalized groups and decrease much-needed diversity on college campuses and in the workforce.


What is affirmative action?

According to Smithsonian Magazine, the term “affirmative action” was first used by former President John F. Kennedy after issuing Executive Order 10925 in 1961. The order stated that federal contractors should take “affirmative action to ensure that applicants are treated equally without regard to race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” Although this language calls for race to be ignored, the intention has remained the same: to “strengthen efforts to realize true equal opportunity for all,” or to promote the integration of race and other factors that disadvantage minorities.

Affirmative action continues to allow for fair access to jobs and opportunities in the workplace and ensures that laborers match the demographics of the overall population. Employers are specifically supposed to hire qualified minorities, women, people with disabilities, and veterans to “overcome present effects of past practices, policies, or barriers.” Affirmative action policies also include training programs and outreach efforts to these marginalized groups.

Although affirmative action was first used to prevent discrimination in employment, colleges with a similar goal began to account for race in admissions in the 1960s and 1970s. At first, colleges and universities used a quota system to bring in more minorities, resulting in some minority applications being accepted despite having lower scores than the school’s average to fill the quota. These schools also justified affirmative action by arguing that they were accounting for systematic discrimination that has historically disadvantaged certain groups. However, following the 1978 ruling in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the use of affirmative action was upheld, but the quota system and this justification could no longer be used as it violated the Equal Protection Clause and the Civil Rights Act of 1964; the Court believed that race should only factor into a student’s chance of admission on a case-by-case basis. Since the decision, the use of affirmative action can only be legally argued to help increase diversity in schools.


The Supreme Court cases…

The ongoing lawsuit against Harvard University—and eventually, the University of North Carolina—was initiated in 2014 by Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA). Founded by Edward Blum in 2014, the non-profit membership group believes that race shouldn’t be a factor in college applications. Asian American plaintiffs in SFFA’s lawsuit against Harvard University claimed that they were discriminated against in Harvard’s application process due to affirmative action. The case was decided in Harvard’s favor at a district court, but SFFA appealed the decision and was granted a hearing on Oct. 31, 2021 by the Supreme Court.

Unsurprisingly, Blum is a 61-year-old white man who believes that “your race and ethnicity really shouldn’t count for anything.” It’s also not surprising to know that Blum has founded another organization, Project on Fair Representation, that wishes to end racial classification in regard to educational scholarships, employment, and reparation plans. 

Blum is certainly not the first to have opposed affirmative action admission policies. In the 2003 landmark case Grutter v. Bollinger, Sandra Grutter, a white student, sued the University of Michigan Law School after being denied admission with a 3.8 GPA and a 161 LSAT score as they were higher than other accepted minority students. Though the Supreme Court had once again upheld the use of affirmative action, the Court could now be overturning this over 60-year-old precedent by claiming it violates the Equal Protection Clause and that colorblind policies will effectively eliminate racial discrimination.


…and their irreversible effect

When achieved, Blum’s politically colorblind approach to life would not only make it harder than it already is for underrepresented minorities to get into good schools, but it would also decrease representation in workforces where having an accurate reflection of the population is key. Professions that already lack racial and ethnic diversity (education, litigation, therapy, and a number of others typically in the STEM field) will continue to overrepresent the white and Asian population. Can students feel supported, clients feel properly understood and represented, and patients get the best help if they feel “othered” by the person before them? Proper representation helps to reduce racial stereotypes propagated by the media and encourages underrepresented minorities to see themselves in majority-white professions, boosting their self-esteem and pushing them to reach their potential.

If affirmative action is ruled unconstitutional, Asian American admissions rates in the class of 2024 college cycle will barely increase. A study released in 2016 and conducted by Justice Goodwin Liu of the California Supreme Court found that if hypothetically no Black or Hispanic applicants were admitted into Harvard, the acceptance rate of Asian Americans would only increase by 1%.

Frankly, most people overlook the fact that Southeast Asians and Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (NHPIs) generally hold bachelor’s degrees and are accepted into colleges at significantly lower rates than East Asians. 16% of Cambodian Americans, 17% of Hmong Americans, and 23% of NHPIs hold bachelor’s degrees compared to 55% of Chinese and 56% of Korean Americans. Contrary to what SFFA claims in their lawsuit, banning affirmative action would actually hurt many Asian American ethnicities and NHPIs who are underrepresented in colleges. 

Guess who would fill the rest of the spots? Advantaged white applicants.

Why target affirmative action policies for discriminating against Asian Americans in admissions when 43% of Harvard’s white admits are athletes, legacies, dean’s interest list students, or children of school faculty (ALDCs)? A study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that if ALDC students were judged fairly against other applicants, 75% of them would have never gotten in. In Harvard’s class of 2026, out of 1,984 admitted students, 346 were white ALDC students and only 248 were Black or Hispanic students where race was the determinative factor to them gaining admission. 

Nine states that have already banned the use of affirmative action, including California and Michigan, recorded significant drops in their Black and Hispanic student populations. Since 2006, when the University of Michigan stopped using affirmative action, the percentage of Black students at the school dropped from 7.6% in 2005 to 4% in 2021. Additionally, the New York Times reported that the University of California, Berkeley’s freshman class in 2021 only had 258 Black students out of 6,931 students. Instead of using affirmative action, both universities have attempted expensive outreach programs, which have largely failed to increase diversity on campus. Because proxies for using race in admissions, such as outreach programs, are unsuccessful, banning affirmative action would clearly be a major mistake.


Distinguishing equality from equity

The confusion between equality and equity commonly sparks a difference in opinion on whether affirmative action should be overturned. 

Equality is the state of regarding or affecting all objects in the same way; however, equity is “justice according to natural law or right” (Merriam Webster). In layman’s terms, equality is giving everyone the same thing, no matter their circumstance, while equity is giving everyone what they need to achieve sameness based on their circumstances.

The Court’s potential overturning of affirmative action would be idiotic; equal opportunity doesn’t exist in communities where the cycle of poverty, crime, high incarceration, and a lack of education prevent students from thriving. 

To put it into perspective, according to U.S. News, Edina High School is ranked fourth best in the state for college readiness. However, Burnsville High School is ranked #102. 65% of Edina students have passed at least one AP exam compared to only 19% in Burnsville (12 are offered compared to Edina’s 26). As reported by the U.S. Census, the median household income in Edina (3% Black) is $115k compared to $80k in Burnsville (13% Black), which is slightly above the state median of $77k. Now, think about the quality of education of a student living in Waite Park (30% Black) where the median income is $47k.

Just by looking at income, Edina students have a higher chance of performing better than Burnsville students. SAT and ACT prep courses, tutoring, or involvement in a sport can each cost a family thousands of dollars. The laborious task of accumulating a stand-out extracurricular list becomes easier for the Edina student with access to opportunities that range from playing and maintaining an expensive instrument to study abroad programs. 

In addition, due to the current way states tax and fund schools, schools in more affluent cities will have access to better quality student facilities: teachers, counselors, monetary scholarships, and the overall atmosphere of the school will aid students more than the less rich counterpart. Evidently, a solely meritocratic system would be flawed.

As a result, some ask why affirmative action policies don’t focus on class rather than race.

Studies on Black and white families with the same income have shown that students of Black families generally score lower on standardized tests and go to college at lower rates due to factors that have stemmed from historical discrimination. 

Approaching a society that has had a history of race barring people from enjoying certain amenities written into laws through a colorblind lens will not solve any problem relating to discrimination: it will allow it to fester.


Diversity: what does it mean and why is it important?

In general, higher academic institutions need to hold up to their promise of providing an elite education and meaningful experience. This not only includes teaching students to effectively balance rigorous coursework with personal activities, supplemental internships, and a social life, but also figuring out how to work and learn from a diverse set of peers.  

In more culturally diverse countries, researchers found that residents had a stronger sense of community compared to homogenous countries. Attending secondary schooling is a time for many students to leave their bubble or echo chamber—which often characterizes a mostly white and wealthy city—and encounter people underrepresented in their hometown or disingenuously through the media. Countless students report on sites like Niche and Unigo state that one reason that they like attending their diverse, selective school is because of their ability to interact with people they had little knowledge of beforehand and notice their similarities despite racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic differences.

A study conducted by Columbia University found a parabolic relationship between diversity in secondary education and the salaries of the school’s alumni: too much or too little diversity lowered salaries. Ironically, the elimination of affirmative action would actually hurt white students more in the future than it is currently argued to during the admissions process.

Affirmative action programs are also needed to increase diversity in the workforce. Black, Hispanic, and Native American people are underrepresented in all scientific fields. Often when attending predominantly minority schools, Black, Hispanic, and Native American students are disadvantaged by a lack of educational funding and developed STEM curriculums. Further, implicit bias from adults in Black students’ lives often encourage them to work towards a sports career, usually basketball or football, as these activities are more accessible to lower income levels. Once these minorities have the resume to submit to job postings, another study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that prospective employees with “remarkably common” African-American names (Lakisha or Jamal) received callbacks at a 50% lower rate than common white names (Emily or Greg). 

In healthcare, the lack of Black physicians (5.7%) allows white physicians to perpetuate harmful myths that stereotype Black patients as capable of withstanding more pain. Higher rates of mistreatment lead to general mistrust among Black people in the U.S. healthcare system as seen in the COVID-19 pandemic; Black people were dying at higher rates than other races from the virus, but they were less willing to get the vaccine. Additionally, from 2016 to 2018, the CDC found that the Black pregnancy mortality rate was three times higher than their white counterparts. 

Ultimately, affirmative action policies are not to blame for the discrimination Asian Americans face in college admissions when much more preference is given to underperforming ALDCs than qualified minorities who were unlucky in the resources they had access to. With numerous studies confirming that going to a diverse school is beneficial for everyone’s education and career, who is affirmative action really harming? Iconic movies like “Back to the Future” and “Avengers: Endgame” continuously solidified that time traveling to the past was a distant fantasy; thank you, Supreme Court of the United States, for revealing that this feat is actually possible.

This piece was originally published in Zephyrus’ print edition on April 20.