The Supreme Court should stay affirmative about affirmative action

Illustration+by+Rachel+Choi

Photo: Illustration by Rachel Choi

Illustration by Rachel Choi

By Rachel Choi, Copyeditor

On Monday, Oct. 31, the Supreme Court held a hearing regarding the legality of race-conscious admission programs, more commonly known as affirmative action, through a lawsuit by the anti-affirmative action organization Students for Fair Admissions against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. 

The hearing lasted for over a grueling five hours, consisting of a tense back and forth between the conservative-majority justices and various representatives from the three organizations. It ended on a bleak note, however—the conservative justices seemed to lean towards the idea of letting affirmative action at these universities come to an end.

Affirmative action is a set of policies established by an institution to consider race and other factors—though the focus has shifted to race over the years—in admissions processes. The policies seek to provide equitable opportunity of access to higher education and to diversify student bodies. Affirmative action has been upheld by many colleges and universities across the nation, as they attempt to promote selection processes that consider the inherent disadvantages BIPOC, especially Black, students experience due to disproportionate access to a variety of resources and education.

The fact that the majority of Supreme Court justices are actively siding with the anti-affirmative action sentiment is ludicrous; you would assume the people in charge of providing equal opportunity for all would understand how the lack of such policies would affect the lives of BIPOC students across the nation. Until there’s a better way of addressing income disparity, unequal access to quality education, lack of resources, poverty, and a whole slew of other race-based problems perpetuated by a lack of governmental action, affirmative action needs to not only remain an option for institutions to implement, but should be encouraged. 

Students of color are predisposed to poorer conditions that can prevent access to higher-level institutions. Many students of color live in high-poverty neighborhoods—in Massachusetts, 7.6 percent of white people live in poverty while 14.5 percent Black people, 23.4 percent Hispanic people, 9 percent Asian/Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander people, and 12.4 percent American Indian/Alaska Native people live in poverty. In high-poverty neighborhoods, schools have less access to college-prep courses or even the expected amount of math and science courses taken in public schools elsewhere. Affirmative action takes these disadvantages into account; it’s a policy that gives these students a chance to enter tertiary education. 

Because many states acknowledge this fact, affirmative action is legally allowed to be implemented within colleges and universities across the board aside from nine states including Michigan and California. Although there is plenty of debate surrounding the policy, affirmative action has historically wielded favorable results through the diversity it brings. Meeting, living, and conversing with people of all different backgrounds exposes students to new perspectives and ideas about the world. This socialization improves students’ intellectual engagement, performance, and even their leadership skills. Solicitor General Elizabeth B. Prelogar put it best during the hearing: “When students of all races and backgrounds come to college, they become better colleagues, better citizens, and better leaders.” 

Affirmative action also encourages students to be more daring and apply to more prestigious institutions. Diverse student bodies are proof to prospective students that they will find their  place in an institution that may seem daunting. The fear of experiencing additional discrimination in a white-dominated campus can deter BIPOC students from applying to certain colleges. I know first-hand how uncomfortable it is being the only person of color in a class full of white people. Feelings of loneliness can discourage meaningful interactions and stunt the potential for learning through unspoken isolation. 

Diversity in higher education also promotes social mobility, working to break the invisible barrier of society and helping the rigid structure of class become more malleable. Subsequently, positions of leadership and prestige become more open to those from lower-class backgrounds. 

The fact that the Court showed so much willingness to side with Students for Fair Admissions and end affirmative action despite the proven effectiveness and benefits diversity brings for students of all races was nothing short of alarming. Suffice to say, last Monday’s hearing was one small step backward for man and one giant leap backward for mankind. 

This is not the first time affirmative action has been debated in the Supreme Court. The most notable hearing occurred on April 1, 2003 during Grutter vs. Bollinger. The case was heard in court after a prospective white student sued the University of Michigan Law School, arguing she had been denied admission on the basis of race. In doing so, Barbara Grutter argued the university had violated the Fourteenth Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

The Court’s decision was a commendable one. It upheld its previous ruling which allowed race to be considered—but racial quotas unconstitutional—in admission. It became loud and clear that the U.S. was going to move forward to try and be the land of opportunity it so desperately wanted to be. Unfortunately, this attempt is now being challenged by a group of people who are unwilling to see how ending affirmative action would negatively affect students across the country, and actively move the fight against entrenched racial inequity back in time instead of forward.

It’s undoubtedly true that affirmative action, despite its many benefits, also has problems. The fact that race is considered in admission criteria can sometimes play right into the stigma that  minorities are only getting in due to the color of their skin—a stigma many white people hold against minorities entering elite institutions. It also introduces the proposal of reverse discrimination, a term describing the practice of favoring individuals belonging to groups previously discriminated against like in the case of Gruttler vs. Bollinger, and can further create tension between the majority and minority. However, despite these problems, institutions need to consider alternative options for promoting racial diversity and equity. 

Why? Well, here comes the real kicker: There really aren’t any alternative options. 

There is no alternative way to effectively increase diversity while maintaining a completely, bias-free selection process in the U.S. as of yet. Without affirmative action, diversity has already proven to plummet. In the case of the campuses of California State University, Black students enrolled in 2018 were half that of ‘97—a mere four percent. At the University of Michigan, after race-conscious admissions were banned, there was a sharp decline of Black and Native American student enrollment. The percentages of Black students dropped to four percent from seven percent, while Native American enrollment dropped to 0.11 percent from one percent. 

There really is no other method of diversifying campuses without considering race at this point in our country’s history. It’s an unfortunate reality of America’s education system and society as a whole—racial inequalities persist and have persisted over centuries. White people naturally have the higher ground, with the most access to income and resources to help them succeed in life. Thanks to the history of segregation and discrimination, minorities are significantly more disadvantaged, no matter how hard they work.

Until this country offers true equal opportunity for all—or until there are new methods found to increase diversity without considering a holistic approach that includes race—affirmative action is the only way to truly reflect diversity.