The end of affirmative action affects the future of universities

Asian protesters applauded the ruling while African-Americans say the decision will perpetuate their disadvantage. Universities are looking for other for ways to maintain a diverse student body

Supporters and opponents of affirmative action outside the Supreme Court on Thursday.
Supporters and opponents of affirmative action outside the Supreme Court on Thursday.ANNA MONEYMAKER (Getty Images via AFP)
Miguel Jiménez

Police evacuated the area around the Supreme Court on Thursday shortly after two landmark rulings that have dealt a fatal blow to affirmative action in college admissions. A police officer explained that it was due to an unidentified package that could potentially contain explosives. It was a false alarm. The only explosive thing on Thursday was the decision of the court, which has taken a new conservative turn. Groups of demonstrators both for and against the decision challenged one another verbally, sometimes physically, outside the court.

The decision, which overturned admissions plans at Harvard and the University of North Carolina, the nation’s oldest private and public colleges, respectively, have not only divided judges, but also political parties and a large part of society. Its consequences will be far-reaching, especially for Latino and Black communities. The experience of the nine states that have already prohibited affirmative action in college admissions shows that the representation of these minorities decreases significantly. Universities are now scrambling to find alternative ways to achieve a diverse student body.

The problem is that, as Chief Justice Judge John Roberts said, access to university is a zero-sum game. Positively discriminating against someone because of their race implies negatively discriminating against another because of theirs. It is an argument that may seem logically flawless, but it leaves out the effect of historical and systemic racial discrimination that eliminates equal opportunity.

"Historic moment"

At the doors of the Supreme Court, Eva Guo, an Asian American who lives on the outskirts of Washington, celebrated the victory of Students for Fair Admissions, the group created by the conservative activist Edward Blum that has successfully challenged the admissions systems of the two aforementioned universities. Guo, who belonged to the board of Students for Fair Admissions, shared her story with EL PAÍS and declared herself “excited” by the “historic moment” she was experiencing.

Guo says her two sons have been harmed by affirmative action. One boy was rejected from a program for talented students where other non-Asian boys with much lower scores were admitted. And last year, her eldest son failed to get into the universities he applied for, even though other students with lower scores who were not Asian were admitted. “It is unfair. They were denied the opportunity to pursue their dreams just because of their race,” she says.

Across from Guo’s group, in which Indian, Chinese and Filipino Americans were in the majority, a group of young students, almost all African-Americans, were protesting the decision: “We will not back down. The Supreme Court has bowed to the personal beliefs of an extremist minority,” said Derrick Johnson, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), via email. “We will not allow hateful people in power to turn back the clock and undermine our hard-won victories.”

California, Michigan, Washington, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nebraska, New Hampshire, and Oklahoma already prohibited affirmative action. The experience of those states shows a displacement of Black and Latino students to lower-ranked universities. A chain effect is generated. It is not just that they have lower scores, but that they perceive that they are less likely to be admitted to top colleges and submit fewer applications. Added to this is the prohibitive price of elite universities, which already generally entails some degree of segregation.

So far, achieving diversity by other means does not seem to work very well. In California, affirmative action disappeared after a referendum in the second half of the 1990s. The representation of Latinos fell by half despite the fact that universities made efforts to promote themselves in their neighborhoods or to assess other socioeconomic and cultural factors in admissions tests that came to replace the racial ones.

Although Latino and Black households have lower median incomes, in absolute terms there are still more low-income white households. The zip code, what high school the applicant attended, being a first-generation university student and other alternatives are also being used to achieve this diversity, but the results are not as effective as with affirmative action.

In 2020, affirmative action was put to a referendum in California again and was flatly rejected by voters. In the country as a whole it is not a popular policy either, although the results of the surveys vary a lot depending on the way in which the question is formulated. Citizens generally seem willing to allow race to count as long as it is not the deciding factor.

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