Chris Hopson | Harvard University
A lawsuit brought by a group called Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) against Harvard University has just ended. SFFA, founded and led by conservative legal activist Edward Blum, wants Harvard to stop considering race in its evaluation of college applicants, alleging that this policy discriminates against Asian-American applicants.
Blum has spent much of his career advocating against race-conscious laws and policies elsewhere in the United States, and many people have observed that his SFFA lawsuit fits into a long historical pattern of white Americans using Asian-Americans as a ‘racial wedge’. This is a strategy of turning Asian-Americans and other minority groups against each other so that they don’t unite against systemic racism, which hurts all non-white people. I agree that the SFFA lawsuit is an iteration of this strategy.
But there is much more at stake in this lawsuit than Harvard’s admissions process. If the case winds up before the Supreme Court college admissions across the country could change, so we will likely be hearing many opinions about “affirmative action” in the coming months and years. But there are significant problems in the way that conversations about race and college admissions are often had. We should honestly and seriously engage in discussion about what constitutes “fairness” in college admissions, but we must also remember that there is no level playing field in a society deeply marred by social inequality, which makes “fairness” difficult to define.
What is “affirmative action”? The term has been around for a long time but grew in significance under the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, which issued Executive Orders requiring government contractors to take “affirmative action” to ensure that employees were no longer subject to discrimination based on their race, gender, religion, or nationality. “Affirmative action” in university admissions, though, is not aimed at ending or making up for centuries of racial discrimination in higher education. Since the landmark 1978 Supreme Court ruling in Regents of the University of California vs Bakke, universities have only been legally allowed to consider an applicant’s race as one factor among many in a holistic admissions process, and only for the purpose of creating a diverse student body. Universities, therefore, don’t actually have “affirmative action” policies, they have race-conscious holistic admissions policies. Regrettably, the narrative about race-conscious admissions often implies that unqualified black, Latinx, and Native American students get university spots at the expense of qualified Asian-American and white students. This notion is wrong. Holistic admissions are designed to bring in a diverse group of students whom the university has deemed “qualified”, and race is not the only social category under consideration. Gender-consciousness in holistic admissions, for example, is an important reason why schools which used to deny admission to women, like Harvard, now have gender parity in their student bodies. It’s also how schools are able to maintain that gender parity, because without a gender-conscious process, women would likely far outnumber men in undergraduate student bodies. To take another example, geography-consciousness in holistic admissions seeks to ensure that students from underrepresented localities, like rural areas, are represented in student bodies as well. These are just two examples of social categories other than race that are considered in holistic admissions, and applicants from all backgrounds, including white men and white women, benefit from being included in a process that seeks to create a diverse student body.
But in a holistic admissions process, what makes an applicant “qualified”? In my opinion, there is no easy or objective answer. Since American society, and global society for that matter, is characterized by deep inequalities and injustices that systematically hurt various groups of people, students begin the college application process on very unequal footing. Standardized test scores, for example, correlate strongly with parental income, giving children of wealthier parents an advantage. Past research also suggests that there are many low-income students with similar academic profiles to their wealthier peers, but who simply don’t apply to selective schools.
Living in wealthier communities and attending wealthier high schools exposes students to resources and guidance that help them make good applications to selective universities. Bias and prejudice also present obstacles for many students. Studies have shown that students are evaluated and treated differently by classmates, teachers, administrators, and yes, admissions committees, based on their gender, race, and other identities. High school students also have to contend with vastly different home and neighborhood environments based on their personal backgrounds, which can make strong academic performance and extracurricular participation, both highly valued in the college admissions process, difficult.
There is also the existence of stereotype threat: the observed phenomenon that members of stigmatized groups (like people of color and women) often perform worse in academic settings than they are truly capable of, because stereotypes and prejudice affect their self-image and self-confidence. Put simply, students who come from backgrounds that are marginalized in society often have to overcome a host of unfair obstacles just to put forward an application to college, let alone an application that will get them into Harvard. Given this unequal playing field, there are very few measures of “qualification” that aren’t, in one way or another, shaped by societal inequality.
As if things weren’t complicated enough, Harvard has a number of interest groups to keep happy in its admissions process. The university has a financial incentive to satisfy big donors, which it does with disproportionately high admission rates for their children and relatives. Harvard also wants to maintain social diversity, in part because studies have shown that social diversity in a student body increases the quality of education, but probably also because Harvard just wants to look like a 21st-century nondiscriminatory institution. Harvard also wants to have good sports teams, so it recruits athletes (who have a disproportionately high admission rate as well).
There are also various academic departments to satisfy in the admissions process. After all, Harvard College is a liberal arts institution. I’m sure that the admissions office could find enough “qualified” applicants to admit a whole class of students who all want to study STEM and become doctors. But the history and English departments wouldn’t be very happy about that. I’m sure they could also find enough “qualified” applicants who all want to study government and become lawyers, but I bet the school of engineering would have something to say. Any change that Harvard makes to its admissions process might upset this very delicate balance, prompting cries of unfairness. But given this chaotic mess of societal inequality and competing interest groups, can Harvard sift through nearly 40,000 applications every year in an objectively fair way? I don’t think so.
Any admissions process will make choices about what a college values and who it wants to please. Arguing that a college should value, for example, standardized test scores more than athletic ability, doesn’t necessarily make the admissions process more “fair”, just different. Harvard must change its admissions process if it does indeed discriminate against Asian-American applicants, but I cannot support SFFA’s lawsuit, because under the guise of “fairness” it is simply making an argument that test scores, which are unfairly influenced by economic class, should count more than the quest for racial diversity. I personally believe that Harvard’s admissions process should continue to be holistic and race-conscious, but I also think that it should give less of a leg-up to children of alumni and wealthy donors, and focus instead on increasing socioeconomic diversity. I would never claim that my ideal admissions process is objectively fair, because it isn’t. I simply think it’s the most ethically sound option right now.
The fact that an initiative to increase the quality of education through diversity is once again under threat in the courts makes it seem very unlikely that policies designed to directly address the ongoing legacy of racism will ever be realized. But there is hope. In 1969, a group called Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA) was founded in San Francisco, California. In the face of severe discrimination against Asian-American schoolchildren with limited English proficiency, CAA played an important role in the Supreme Court case Lau v. Nichols. In that case, the Court used the legal foundation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to rule that the San Francisco Unified School District’s policies had a disparate impact on students with limited English proficiency. The ruling expanded bilingual education programs throughout the United States, benefitting millions of students. Ever since, CAA has continued to fight against systemic racism and discrimination that harms Asian-American communities, and has been an important ally for other minority groups in their own fights for justice. This is just one example of a long history of solidarity and cooperation between Asian-American communities and other communities of color, a history that continues to this day. I have personally observed that the majority of Harvard student activists defending the university’s race-conscious holistic admissions process are Asian-American, striking a blow against white supremacy’s divide-and-conquer agenda. Let us all remember that unity and solidarity in the fight against injustice is what keeps the promise of egalitarian democracy in America alive.