It’s easy to understand why some (ill-informed) people hate affirmative action and were more than happy to see the Supreme Court kill it for higher education in 2023. The entire concept of giving someone an opportunity—education, work, promotional opportunities—based on their race directly flew in the face of what all of us had been raised to believe: you judge a person on their merits and nothing else. To these people, affirmative action is nothing more than a system of quotas.
These are also the people who are far too opinionated for knowing so little, as the Supreme Court ruled in 1978 that the use of quotas when it comes to affirmative action was unconstitutional.
But even more than their failure to understand how a basic Google search into the history of affirmative action works, their comprehension of what affirmative action is at its core is incredibly flawed. In essence, affirmative action was designed to be an attempt to remove extraordinary factors that could be detrimental to a college prospect’s chances of gaining access to a university.
For example, let’s take two students who are applying to the same university. One student is Black, and one is white. All their grades and test scores are similar, as well as their educational resumes. However, at first glance, it appears that the white student took a lot of extra-curricular activities, along with AP classes, whereas the Black student didn’t.
When you look into the backgrounds of the students, you find that the only reason the Black student didn’t take those classes or activities was because they were unable due to school budget restraints—these differences are due to no fault of their own. Affirmative action is designed to find the systemic reasons for these inequalities while finding quality students of all races and giving them the opportunities college can afford. As we all know, college is nothing more than an opportunity and it takes the work of the individual to succeed. At the end of the day, supporters of affirmative action are hedging their bets that the system will produce the next George Washington Carver and not the next Brock Turner.
In fact, since the beginning of affirmative action in the 1960s, most (though not all) SCOTUS rulings followed the aforementioned example from 1978. The courts were trying their best to remove any chicanery from legal interpretation to get to as level a playing field as possible. One of the reasons for this—since late 1996 anyway—is because of what they watched happen to the state of California once affirmative action was removed statewide for universities when reviewing applications.
2023 New York Times research found that a drop took place at the University of California’s most selective schools after the 1996 referendum, Proposition 209, banned race-conscious admissions. That year, Black students at UCLA made up 7% of the student body. By 1998, the percentage of Black students had fallen to 3.43%.
To help combat this drop, educators in the state opted to get creative in order to keep minority admissions on the rise.
Olufemi Ogundele, associate vice chancellor of admissions and enrollment at UC Berkeley, said that though the university has struggled to achieve the same level of diversity it saw before affirmative action ended in 1996 for California, there is hope. He said his office has found the most success with holistic review practices where they consider factors such as the academic environment of the K-12 school system the applicant attended.
“For a student who goes to a school that does not have AP Physics or AP Calculus, we don’t hold that against that student,” Ogundele said. Instead, he and his department look at the quality of the student without uncontrollable aggravating factors that may prevent the student from being accepted. The same NY Times research bares Ogundele’s statements to be true when they point to the University of California’s increased outreach in low-income communities. Over time, the number of Black and Hispanic students increased at most schools in the system. In fact, by 2022 the percentage of Black students at UCLA had increased to 5%.
Yet, as Newton pointed out, “for every action in nature, there is an equal and opposite reaction”—affirmative action is no different. Enter the Cambridge Public School system of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Cambridge Public Schools began phasing out advanced math courses in grades six through eight around 2017 when district officials noticed sharp racial disparities in the program. Students who were placed in the advanced math track were overwhelmingly white and Asian. At the same time, the lower-level courses were filled primarily with Black and Latino students, the Boston Globe reported earlier this year.
“The students who are able to jump into a higher level math class [in high school] are students from better-resourced backgrounds,” Jacob Barandes, a district parent and a Harvard physicist, told the Globe. “They’re shortchanging a significant number of students, overwhelmingly students from less-resourced backgrounds, which is deeply inequitable.”
To rectify this, the school board decided to take a “scorched Earth” approach by removing the courses completely; none of the district’s four middle schools will offer Algebra I to anybody.
Yes, those in charge felt that it would be better to keep everyone lacking in both the academic and educational benefits that these courses would offer instead of trying to think of ways to circumnavigate the legalities of the situation in order to improve it.
Imagine if this idea took hold on a state level and Boston University decided to remove certain science and math classes due to the attendance numbers of minorities in those classes not meeting a specific threshold. This would mean that if you wanted a master’s degree in a field of medicine, you would have to transfer to another university for your remaining courses—basically a complete nightmare. And all due to no fault of your own.
Thankfully, it seems that universities in Colorado looked at both options and signaled they would modify their approach to diversity goals by adopting the course of action California decided to take.
A statement from the University of Colorado—signed by the president and chancellors—hinted at how the educational system intends to achieve its diversity goals. “We will continue to employ admission processes that consider the whole student and their ability to succeed in our academically rigorous and supportive environment,” the officials said.
In a separate statement, CU Boulder Chancellor Philip DiStefano said the court’s decision “recognizes that universities may still consider the unique experiences of individual students, which might include how race has affected the applicant’s life.” He added, “Those experiences can demonstrate an applicant’s unique ability to contribute to the university.”
Look, I’m all about being creative when it comes to solving problems that are constantly being dished out to the average American by those in government—in the 21st Century, you have to be. But whenever given the choice, I will always choose for increasing/preserving the accessibility to education instead of removing it. As we’ve seen, it’s really the snake eating its own tail: the less education you have, the less education you want others to have access to, thereby spreading the disease of ignorance.