Affirmative Action: A Cure, Not a Curse

Photo: Joe Hall

I first learned about the Harvard affirmative action lawsuit last fall, when “VICE News Tonight” showed a group of Asian students protesting what they perceive as a disproportionately high bar for admittance into the university. Immediately, something about the case seemed off-kilter to me. Perhaps it was just the fact that race-conscious admissions were being protested by Asian Americans rather than by the sorts of angry, entitled white people who typically show up to protest affirmative action. Still, something about the whole situation left a sour taste in my mouth – a feeling that something greater and more sinister was at work behind the scenes. It felt wrong to watch one historically disadvantaged community protest a policy designed to aid other students facing similar barriers to entry. As playwright Young Jean Lee wrote in a recent op-ed to the New York Times, I immediately got the sense that “the Harvard admissions lawsuit is a cynical manipulation that urges Asian Americans to sell out other people of color.”

After researching the case further, my suspicions were affirmed when I learned the case was pioneered by a group called Students for Fair Admissions whose members believe race-based admissions policies violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. The group is backed by conservative legal strategist Edward Blum, who has dedicated his career to ending affirmative action policies in higher education, so far bringing six affirmative action cases to the Supreme Court. Most notably was the University of Texas at Austin case, wherein the Supreme Court narrowly sided with UT in a 4-3 decision that upheld UT’s admissions policies as lawful under the Equal Protection Clause.

Blum’s track record clearly indicates that he is not an ally for Asian-American students – or any other community of color – but is quite happy to use them as a political pawn in his long-standing quest to preserve white privilege in higher education.

The Harvard case, like most discrimination lawsuits, was built on statistics that supposedly prove Harvard uses unconstitutional race discrimination when recruiting and accepting students. However, the aspect of this case that has received the most attention pertains to how Harvard’s applicant rating system shows Asian Americans as routinely falling behind other racial groups in the “personal score” category, which has to do with personality, likeability and interpersonal skills. The plaintiff in the case points out the discrepancy between academic and extracurricular ratings, where Asian-American students consistently perform exceptionally well, and the personal score, where they do not.

However, the plaintiff’s analysis withholds several key pieces of information that are at odds with his argument. For example, SFFA’s analysis does not take into account students who are recruited athletes, children of alumni and faculty or those on the dean’s interest list. Harvard countered that a cohesive conclusion about admission biases cannot be made without a cohesive look at the entire applicant pool.

A quick glance at the Harvard admitted students profile shows that 22.9 percent of the Harvard class of 2022 is Asian-American, while Asian Americans make up 5.6 percent of the total American population. Compared with other racial minorities in the Harvard class of 2022, African Americans compose 15.2 percent, Hispanic or Latino students 12.3 percent, and Native American students just 1.9 percent.

If the plaintiffs win their case against Harvard – which is a likely outcome if the case reaches the Supreme Court – the implementation of “race-blind” admissions will only work to help aid the already overrepresented caucasian students while simultaneously working against all communities of color, especially African American, Latino and Hispanic, and Native American students, who often face the highest barriers to entry even with affirmative admission policies intact.

This danger of race-blind admissions was voiced by many Harvard students and alumni who took the witness stand in court, including an African-American student named Sarah Cole, who said she would not have applied to Harvard if the school didn’t consider race in its admissions process.

“Race-blind admissions is an act of erasure,” Cole said on the witness stand. “To not see my race is to not see me.”

Many justices now sitting on the Supreme Court would be happy to vote in favor of the sort of erasure Cole talked about in her testimony. In the UT case, retired Justice Anthony Kennedy cast the deciding vote that protected UT’s admission policies, writing in his majority opinion that universities should be afforded a wide latitude of freedom in their applicant selection processes that help achieve the intangible “qualities which are incapable of objective measurement but which make for greatness.”

It’s also important to recognize that while UT Austin in a public university, Harvard is a private institution. So if Harvard chose to only admit African-American students into the class of 2023, that would be its own prerogative. And while a statement like that might seem radical, we would do well to remember that Harvard opened in 1636 but did not accept an African-American student until Beverly Garnett Williams more than 200 years later in 1847. However, Garnett Williams passed away before the school year began, and Harvard didn’t admit another black student until Richard T. Greener 23 years later in 1870.

So perhaps admitting only African-American students for one year isn’t such a radical idea after all, if we take into account the reality that only white students attended Harvard for over 200 years. Given the history of racial bias in higher education in America, it seems logical that affirmative action is the least we can do to help students of color be able to attend the prestigious universities that were off limits to them for longer than they’ve been allowed acceptance.

Most troublesome to me is the fact that if the Harvard case makes its way to the Supreme Court today, where Anthony Kennedy has since been replaced by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the safety of affirmative action policies at Harvard and around the nation will be under serious threat.

I’ve always thought of affirmative action policies in the way Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg talks about gender equality:

“I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”

Perhaps it is finally time we take our feet off the necks of students of color and accept the objective reality that “race-blind” admissions will never be an equitable policy in a world that will never be “race-blind” itself.