What the End of Affirmative Action in Higher Education Means (and Doesn’t)

Michael Harriot clarifying what the Supreme Court actually struck down with today’s ruling against Harvard and the University of North Carolina

Even though I believed affirmative action would die at the hands of the conservative majority, it still stings to see that belief confirmed. There are plenty of professional writers you can read that have already dissected the various and sundry contradictions, dishonesties, and foolishness in the text of the majority ruling. This piece is primarily about what is likely to happen in the aftermath of the ruling.

The end of affirmative action will require every public and private university in the United States to eliminate race as a factor in their admissions decisions (if they haven’t already done so). In Texas, for example, that means UT-Austin will no longer be able to factor race into such decisions, and neither will private universities like Rice and SMU. However, as Michael Harriot succinctly put it, the end of affirmative action does not mean the end of admission preferences for those whose beneficiaries are primarily white (and/or) wealthy. At elite schools that use legacy admissions, those students will still be accepted at rates from 11% to 30% (far higher than non-legacies). Interestingly enough, some of those advocating for an end to legacy admissions can be found on the campuses that use them.

The end of affirmative action will not mean the end of black people being scapegoated by non-black people for being denied admission to elite universities. When I researched the 6 elite colleges Jon Wang blamed affirmative action for keeping him out of, even after you exclude U.C. Berkeley and CalTech (because California banned affirmative action in higher education via Prop 209 in 1996), the percentage of the undergraduate student body that is Asian-American at the remaining four schools are as follows: MIT (33.9%), Princeton (25%), Harvard (27.9%), Carnegie-Mellon University (over 20%). The percentage of the undergraduate student body that is black at those same schools: MIT (7%), Princeton (9%), Harvard (15.2%), Carnegie-Mellon University (3%). Years before this latest ruling, Abigail Fisher blamed affirmative action for the University of Texas at Austin denying her admission, even though 168 black and Latino students with grades as or better than Fisher’s were also rejected for admission.

A hopelessly naive statement about the future of civil rights

A friend forwarded me the tweet above. I’ve reproduced my response to it below:

We aren’t “moving onto the content of our character” portion of civil rights. Barack and Michelle Obama are the most elite couple ever to grace the halls of the White House regardless of race. Christians who actually went to church for non-political reasons. And for the entirety of their 8 years [in the White House] the political right in this country talked about them like dogs. And that’s before you get to the wealthy mediocrity this country elected as a backlash to his presidency. The idea that affirmative action–a policy to which this country’s commitment was uneven at best–should have a time limit of mere decades as a corrective to centuries of chattel slavery and Jim Crow (while legacy admissions continue ad infinitum to perpetuate advantage for wealthy and/or well-connected and mostly white mediocrities who would otherwise be shut out of elite education) has nothing to do with “meritocracy” and everything to do with anti-blackness.

One of my own angry DMs

Contrary to the naive notions of those who have consistently opposed affirmative action—including and especially opposition from certain black conservatives—the end of affirmative action in higher education will not end questions about whether a black person in any elite context has earned their place. Opposition to affirmative action is a very specific, very pernicious form of anti-blackness which rests on two (false) propositions: (1) the number of black people at elite institutions is “unnaturally high”, and (2) native-born black Americans in particular are somehow deficient, even relative to black immigrants. Too many in this country are vested in the notion that no elite institution can be truly meritocratic if too many black people are a part of it. So despite the fact that many in elite spheres are there because of the connections and/or wealth of their parents (rather than their own intellectual or artistic prowess), their presence in the elite is never challenged.

The end of affirmative action will not increase the percentage of Asian-American students accepted to elite universities much–if at all. People of Asian descent are a little over 7% of the U.S. population but are already the largest minority population at elite institutions beyond the half-dozen already named earlier, at three to six times higher a percentage on these campuses than in the general population (over 40% at CalTech for example). Regardless of how badly people want to believe that admission to elite institutions of higher education will somehow be “fairer” in the absence of affirmative action, the reality of college admissions is a far more opaque process. Each incoming class is curated, and the criteria (and how much weight each input to the admissions process is given) are controlled by the institutions–not the applicants. Low admission rates and the relatively small sizes of each class are part of the institutional strategy for maintaining their elite reputations. Legacy admissions almost certainly contribute to the maintenance and growth of the sizable endowments these institutions have. In the years to come, we will see just how few native-born black Americans actually benefited from affirmative action intended for them.

Social media is filled with assertions that elite universities will be able to use socioeconomic status as a proxy for race and still achieve their diversity goals. But this article in the Wall Street Journal reviews data from 8 states in addition to California who banned race-conscious admissions to their higher education institutions and found that there are consistently fewer black, Hispanic, and Native American students despite all the additional efforts the schools put toward achieving their diversity goals through other means. The end of affirmative action will therefore mean far fewer black students (and brown students) at elite higher education institutions. The notable exception to this (which highlights the way in which the Roberts court lacks the courage of its convictions) is military service academies.

Justice Sotomayor calls out Chief Justice Roberts’ hypocrisy in allowing military service academies to continue using affirmative action but not religious institutions

It was cowardly enough for Chief Justice Roberts to put the exception in a footnote. But even had he been bold enough to put the exception in the main body of the majority opinion, his message to black Americans is clear: you do not belong in the elite institutions of civilian life, but you are welcome to risk life and limb in the furtherance of this nation’s military goals.

Finally (for now), the end of affirmative action is far from the end of anti-black rulings from this court. Affirmative action in employment will almost certainly be the next thing to be ruled unconstitutional. Nor do I believe the court to be finished diminishing the voting rights of this country’s black citizens (despite recent rulings preserving what remains of section 2 of the Voting Rights Act).