Last fall, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) sued Harvard University because they claimed that Harvard unfairly discriminated against Asian-Americans in its admissions process.
Almost a year later, Judge Allison Burroughs has ruled that Harvard’s admissions process is fair; even though the process is race conscious, Harvard does not use racial balancing or set racial quotas violating Civil Rights legislation as SFFA claimed.
SFFA had suggested using race-neutral decisions in admissions, but Burroughs agreed with Harvard that race is necessary to ensure diversity on campus.
In her opinion, she said that although Harvard’s use of a personal rating score leaves room for implicit bias against applicants, this bias was very low. Bias cannot be totally eliminated especially in an admissions system that allows for recommendations from students’ educators.
She also noted that admissions officers are asked to make judgments about individual students in the admissions process. Although Harvard’s admissions system was not perfect, it was still constitutional, and she suggested that Harvard could help improve its system by holding bias trainings for its officers.
But is the use of race in college admissions only necessary when ensuring diversity?
Burroughs hinted that this case and the questions about race and Affirmative Action that it brings up go further than diversity.
She said, “the benefits that flow from that diversity will foster the tolerance, acceptance and understanding that will ultimately make race conscious admissions obsolete.”
The diversity that race conscious decisions make possible allow for the possibility of equal opportunities for underrepresented students of color.
This is why Affirmative Action was created almost 60 years ago.
John Johnson, Ph.D, an associate professor of history at Saint Peter’s University, explains, “Affirmative Action, as a set of laws and practices, were devised to address forms of past and present discrimination against historically oppressed people. It is not simply about increasing diversity.”
While diversity on student campuses is great, it is not the only reason race conscious decisions are needed. This focus on diversity ignores current and threatening realities like institutional racism and sexism.
Diversity creates tolerance, but it does not destroy the racism imbedded into our system.
“We must not lose sight of the past and indeed the present forms of racial and sexual oppression that limit the freedoms of Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans and women,” said Johnson. “Affirmative Action policies were instituted to ensure that historically oppressed people enjoy the full use of their constitutionally guaranteed rights.”
Johnson points out what Burroughs, Harvard and even SFFA all brought up: there are different notions of what it means to be qualified for college admission.
“There is an assumption that Affirmative Action rewards unqualified people. It is simply that, an assumption,” he said. “The latest college admission scandals, where wealthy white parents bribed their children's way into ‘elite’ schools should correct that assumption.”
Harvard takes a holistic approach to its admissions. Harvard and Burroughs both agreed that if grades alone are to be considered, one of the suggestions for a race-neutral alternative, Harvard’s class size would grow exponentially larger; there are students from all over the world who may have perfect grades and SAT scores.
The point of race conscious decisions is to provide opportunities and equal access for students who have historically been blocked from such opportunities as access to education.
Race conscious is “a clear understanding of the history of race relations in the United States; that history is not in the distant past, and that it can impact the lives of historically marginalized and oppressed people.”
Why are Affirmative Action and race conscious decisions still important today?
Because the history of race in America is directly related to which groups have been able to gain access to things like purchasing a home, sufficient jobs, and wealth building.
Johnson cites legislation like the New Deal and the Housing Act of 1948 which have favored white Americans: “Prior to the 1960s, American law and practices generally took actions that affirmed white Americans and not Black Americans.”
The only way to counteract this systemic racism is by creating policies that give people of color an equal advantage. Not an unfair advantage, but an equal advantage to overcome, as Johnson says, motivation is rooted “in the same dung of White Patriarchal Supremacy.”