Affirmative action was signed into law in 1961 to uplift the involvement of historically marginalized groups and mitigate the effects of past segregation by university systems. From the seminal Regents of the University of California v. Bakke case in 1978, the Supreme Court has held that affirmative action programs play a key role in diversity in the college admissions process under the Fourteenth Amendment. Now that's changing.
Despite the cornucopia of studies that reveal the benefits of a diverse campus for all students, the Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) organization, established by conservative legal strategist Edward Blum, claims that affirmative action is unnecessary—and even hurts the students it's meant to support.
Today, the Supreme Court heard arguments against Harvard College and the University of North Carolina that will ramify how colleges consider race as a factor in applications and potentially ban its consideration entirely. Unlike Bakke however, Blum isn't a student activist–he's funded by conservatives and is known for recruiting plaintiffs to challenge race-centred policies. And the Supreme Court's new conservative 6:3 supermajority will undoubtedly aid his case.
The Harvard Case
SFFA accuses Harvard of discriminating against Asian American students in "subjective" personality traits involved in admissions. It's evident that its campus still struggles to foster diversity to an extent, with its Class of 2025 largely consisting of white freshmen (53.1%) according to a Crimson survey. But the picture is more complex.
Asians are widely stereotyped as being studious, but "[the] idea that all Asian Americans are trying to get into Harvard just isn't true," says Natasha Warikoo, a sociology professor who studies racial inequities in education. Roughly half of AAPI undergraduates attend community colleges or for-profit colleges. Even with the lift on affirmative action, the state of California houses a 90% AAPI undergraduate enrollment in one of its community colleges or public four-year universities.
Elite colleges like Harvard are a mere subgroup of the higher education system. The meritocratic admissions process at the school takes into consideration several components, with a guideline to categorize the details of an applicant in academic, extracurricular, athletic and personal wings. Effectively, the deviation in White and Asian acceptances direct to ALDC preference: the disproportional White athletic population in applicants.
Students for Fair Admissions assert that race-conscious registers discriminate against Asian Americans. By giving preference to Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous students with lower standardized test scores, affirmative action impairs Asian Americans, according to Edward Blum.
Cameron Norris, an SSFA lawyer, targets the school for the “mistreatment” of Asian American applicants. “Its admissions process penalizes them for supposedly lacking as much leadership, confidence likability, or kindness as white applicants,” he said, targeting the system's so-called "personal ratings," which measure an applicant's potential impact on people around them, taking in consideration leadership, maturity, kindness and other generally positive personality traits. Norris claims that it allows admissions officers to rely on anti-Asian stereotypes.
“Seeking the benefits of a diverse student body, universities may consider race as one among many factors,” states Seth Wexman, Harvard's lead lawyer. “Our Constitution [...] does not require us to disregard the commonsense reality that race is one among many things that shape life experiences in meaningful ways,” he added.
The Supreme Court will likely come to a decision next year, while Harvard and its students continue to lean in on affirmative action. "The U.S. admissions process as it currently stands is an attempt to traverse through a student's story, their life as they see fit to share," claims Labiba Uddin, a Harvard Crimson editor. "To erase race from that story is a grave mistake."