In the early 1970s, Allan Bakke was rejected twice by the University of California Davis School of Medicine. Bakke sued the university, claiming he was rejected because he was white. At the time, the medical school reserved 16 out of 100 spots in each class for racial minority applicants. This was part of the University’s adoption of an affirmative action policy, which had gained popularity in higher education in the years following the Civil Rights movement. In the first Supreme Court ruling on the matter, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the Court upheld the constitutionality of affirmative action, though it ruled against the University’s use of “racial quotas” in its admissions. While many progressives celebrated the outcome of this case, the Court’s fractured ruling—consisting of six different opinions—indicated the highly contentious nature of this issue. Almost 50 years later, the Supreme Court is once again considering cases related to affirmative action—and appears poised to outlaw the practice.
On October 31, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for two affirmative action cases, one against Harvard University, and the other against the University of North Carolina. During the hearings, SFFA asserted that affirmative action is a form of racial discrimination that takes spots in selective universities away from deserving white and Asian students. However, what the SFFA fails to accept is that “race-neutral” admissions are impossible in a country riddled with racial inequality. In practice, ending affirmative action would mean taking admissions spots from Black, Indigenous, and Latine applicants. Though members of SFFA argue that affirmative action infringes on their rights, it seems the “rights” in question are systems of racial and financial inequality that put them at the top and their competitors at the bottom.
There is a reason affirmative action was born in the Civil Rights era. In the context of higher education, affirmative action refers to a set of procedures within the admissions process intended to remedy past racial discrimination and increase the diversity of student bodies. By giving special consideration to applicants from historically marginalized groups, affirmative action helps to overcome some of the barriers to entry that these students may face prior to and during the college application process. Activists and academics alike have deemed the practice necessary because, like many other facets of American life, quality education has a long history of being reserved for some and denied to others.
Until the mid-20th century brought the Brown v Board of Education ruling, minority students were largely taught in schools separate from their white counterparts. These schools generally received less funding and had a lower quality of education than the schools provided to white children. Such disparities were reflected in lower test scores on minority students’ college applications, assuming they could apply at all. Even today, the legacy of racist education policies can still be seen in schools, as students of color have less access to honors classes and are concentrated in schools with fewer resources. However, a history of educational segregation is not the only reason for these inequalities.
Knowledge, like any kind of power, is often accessed through money. Students from lower-income families are less likely to be able to afford resources like study materials, private tutors, and college counselors that are proven to help students attain that coveted acceptance letter. In fact, studies have shown that family income is directly correlated with standardized test scores, with the wealthiest students achieving SAT scores that are, on average, hundreds of points higher than those from a low-income background.
While this may not seem related to race on the surface, centuries of systemic racism has tied wealth and income to racial identity. In 2022, Black and Latine households still earn about half as much income as white households, and possess only 15-20 percent of their net wealth. This inevitably plays a role in how well these students perform academically and the resources they are able to access during the college application process.
There is a clear pattern of injustice that must be corrected. This is about more than giving people the “college experience.” It’s about giving marginalized people the keys to opportunity and social mobility. Higher education allows people to make important connections and increases earning potential, creating the people to accumulate generational wealth that could help their families in the future. Expanding access to higher education for Black, Indigenous, and Latine students is a necessary step in addressing inequity, and affirmative action is an essential tool to facilitate this change.
Although some anti-affirmative action advocates have proposed alternatives to the inclusion of race in the admissions process, none of them actually address race-based discrimination. A popular alternative to racial consideration is to encourage socioeconomic diversity, perhaps by favoring students from low-income ZIP codes. However, this would not provide a holistic view of applicants that is necessary to maintain racial diversity on campus.
Even when controlling for socioeconomic factors, Black, Indigenous, and Latine students are still at a disadvantage. They are less likely to be referred to gifted programs and more likely to be suspended or expelled. They are also more likely to experience bullying, especially race-based, which can have a negative impact on academic achievement. In short, a person’s income does not illustrate the unique obstacles that Black, Indigenous, and Latine children face in school and at home. There is no proxy for race that can offer a holistic view of these applicants in a way that does them justice.
In an ideal world, affirmative action would not need to exist. But we do not live in an ideal world. When SFFA and other anti-affirmative action advocates cry out against the “racial discrimination” inherent in affirmative action, they ignore the long and brutal history of systemic racism that makes affirmative action necessary in the first place. The reason white (and some Asian) students are disadvantaged by affirmative action is because they benefit from America’s unequal education system. The situation is best explained by this quote: “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” You can’t have fair admissions on an uneven playing field—so why stop our best attempt at leveling it?