How Did We Get Here? Affirmative Action in Admission to Selective Colleges

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By Natasha Warikoo, Ph.D.

Natasha Warikoo

On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that colleges can no longer consider race in admissions. This ruling addressed two cases, one at Harvard and another at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in which white and Asian American students were believed to experience racial discrimination because of affirmative action. Previous Supreme Court decisions, however, ruled that universities could consider race as one of multiple factors in a holistic review, as long as no other race-neutral alternative to the goal of a diverse learning environment was possible. The current decision reverses those precedents and assumes that race no longer plays a role in American social life, something that social scientists know far too well is false.

How did we get here? Affirmative action in admission to selective colleges dates back to the early 1960s. At that time, elite colleges wanted to be seen as leaders in the fight for racial justice and recognized their histories of racial exclusion. To address these issues, some started admitting small cohorts of African American students, gradually increasing the number of students admitted under the programs over time. Other universities followed the early adopters as they witnessed the success of those programs and the urgent need to find ways to increase access to elite spaces for African Americans. As time went on, other underrepresented groups, particularly Latinx and Native Americans, were included in affirmative action admissions policies.

As with most advances toward racial equity, a backlash soon ensued. By 1978, claims of affirmative action operating as “reverse discrimination” reached the Supreme Court. The court ruled against University of California, Davis’ medical school admissions policy, which set aside seats for Black applicants. Despite the decision, Justice Lewis F. Powell issued a middle ground opinion in which he concurred that racial quotas are unconstitutional but that holistic admissions—considering race among other factors—to build a diverse student body for the benefit of all students, would be permissible.

As a result of Justice Powell’s opinion, social scientists went to task to understand the impact of a racially diverse student body. Researchers found unequivocal evidence for positive outcomes of diversity, including self-perceived leadership capability, racial attitudes, intellectual engagement, and more. These studies bolstered Justice Powell’s decision—they showed conclusively that a racially diverse student body has a myriad of positive impacts on students, both underrepresented minorities and others.

Still, critics continued to attack the policy. Supreme Court decisions in 2003, 2013, and 2015 all confirmed the legality of affirmative action in college admissions, as long as the practice was not too broad and considered race in order to create a diverse student body for all to benefit.

The current cases are not so different from the previous ones to reach the Supreme Court: plaintiffs claimed that the consideration of race in college admissions amounted to racial discrimination. Our 14th Amendment and the 1964 Civil Rights Act mean that race is a protected category, so any practice that considers race requires “strict scrutiny”—you must have a “compelling state interest” for doing so, and the practice must be “narrowly tailored.” It is important to note that these laws were designed to protect African Americans in the wake of slavery and legal segregation, but in these affirmative action cases they are being used to attack a policy originally designed to provide greater access to educational opportunities for African Americans. This legal context means, too, that the consideration of race can be attacked legally, but there is no legal basis to attack policies that privilege white and well-off applicants, such as legacy admissions and considering ability to pay when the admissions office has run out of financial aid dollars. This is quite a contrast to countries like India and South Africa, where quotas for lower-caste Indians and for Black South Africans are written into the countries’ constitutions. So, it is important to remember that the precarious position of affirmative action in college admissions in the United States was not inevitable.

Still, in each case that previously made it to the Supreme Court, the court has confirmed that a diverse student body is a compelling state interest, and that the affirmative action admissions practices are sufficiently narrowly tailored; they are not applied as quotas or mechanistically.

One twist in the Students for Fair Admissions vs. the President and Fellows of Harvard College case is that the plaintiff claims to represent a group of Asian Americans; previous cases have all named a single white plaintiff. After losing the Fischer vs. University of Texas case in 2016, Edward Blum, the man who organized that case and the two cases heard this year, turned to Asian Americans. Blum and his associates latched onto data showing that Asian American admits to elite colleges had, on average, higher SAT scores and GPAs than admitted students of all other races, which they painted as racial discrimination caused by affirmative action. This was a strange logic. If there were discrimination against Asian Americans, ending affirmative action would not be an effective remedy to that discrimination. Still, the case took off, with many believing that anti-Asian American discrimination was at the heart of the case.

Harvard was forced to release years of admissions data for the case. That data revealed that the discrepancy between admitted Asian American and white students’ academic credentials had to do with other credentials that white students had more often than Asian Americans: legacy status, athletic recruitment, intention to major in the humanities, and more. In other words, academics are not the only criteria for admission to Harvard, and white applicants had more of the non-academic credentials.

Much was made, too, of the difference in “personal rating” for Asian American applicants compared to white applicants. According to Harvard, the rating is based on character, and assessed largely from the personal essay and letters of recommendation. But those differences may be driven by factors outside the admissions office. White applicants were more likely to come from private schools, where letters of recommendation are more detailed and polished given the lower number of students private school counselors advise, which can lead to higher ratings. This may be problematic, but it is not evidence of racial discrimination, and, of course, ending affirmative action would not change that discrepancy.

Instead, Asian Americans are being deployed in the efforts of Edward Blum and his associates to further their anti-racial justice agenda. It is important to note that Students for Fair Admissions has received millions of dollars in donations from multiple well-funded conservative foundations.

The ongoing attacks on efforts to promote racial equity, from the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act, to lawsuits in Fairfax County, Va. and Boston claiming that race-neutral admissions changes designed to promote equity across schools are racially discriminatory, to the latest decision on affirmative action, are together part of an effort to produce a chilling effect on schools and universities that are trying to promote broad access to elite institutions and creating diverse learning environments for our leaders of tomorrow. We should be careful not to respond by backing away from these efforts. Instead, universities should comply with the law but also continue to push for greater equity and access to the American dream.

Natasha Warikoo is the Lenore Stern Professor in the Humanities and Social Sciences in the Department of Sociology at Tufts University. She is a former professor at Harvard University, a Guggenheim fellow, and a high school teacher. Warikoo is the author of several books, including: Race at the Top: Asian Americans and Whites in Pursuit of the American Dream in Suburban Schools; Is Affirmative Action Fair? The Myth of Equity in College Admissions; and The Diversity Bargain: And Other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions, and Meritocracy at Elite Universities.