Call It By Its Name: Necessary Racial Preference

Last Monday, the pair of ongoing lawsuits over affirmative action — Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College and Students for Fair Admissions v. The University of North Carolina — disrupted the world. It left us grappling with one question: are the benefits of diversity in universities enough to outweigh the supposed violation of the Equal Protection Clause perpetuated through affirmative action? I believe the answer here is straightforward: yes. A range of experiences and expertise can lead to greater innovation and productivity, which benefits all who are present in a diverse environment. But this beneficial environment can only be achieved if institutions make sure that they are granting access to those from all walks of life, especially those that they have been so biased against in the past. Due to America’s long history of oppressing Brown and Black people, affirmative action is essential to providing equitable opportunities to these underprivileged groups.

Since the 1970s, the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled in favor of affirmative action, and for decades, considering race as a factor in college admissions has been justified by the idea that students learn better in a diverse setting. In University of California v. Bakke (1978), the court ruled that there was a compelling educational interest in diversifying institutions, allowing UC to consider race in admissions so long as it was a factor that was considered on every application, and only one factor of many. In Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), the court upheld the foundation of affirmative action, ruling that admissions officers could consider the race of applicants as long as they did so in a “narrowly tailored” way. It is clear that the benefits of diversity had weight in both of these cases, which set the precedent for a world that utilizes affirmative action. However, it is crucial to note that in a world permeated with nepotism and connections, a vision of racial justice and equity isn’t the only thing on the line here; it is the diversification of the elite. To many companies run by White men, prestigious schools on your applications are a sign that the stereotypes of Black and Brown people do not apply to you; you are not uneducated and uncouth. Though we may not like to admit it, having Harvard written on your application might just be your way into Big Law or that prestigious doctorate program that you have always had your eye on as a Black or Brown person.

But does a Harvard reference on a Black or Brown person’s résumé or a tenured Black professor justify such preferential treatment? In its essence, the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause requires states to treat all individuals in the same manner as other people under similar circumstances. But if universities don’t put in the effort to accept a certain number of Black and Brown students each year, how will we fight against the aftermath of segregationist policies, such as redlining, which educational inequities in many public schools can be traced back to? The education system is built on property taxes, and in poorer communities which are mainly populated by Black and Brown people the amount of money that can be put into local schools cannot equate to the amount of money that is required to employ proficient teachers and provide overall adequate education to students. But that doesn’t mean private schools are innocent. Choosing to move to a private or charter school from one’s local public school also contributes to this cycle of systemic inequity as often times it is the very students that are leaving that are more likely to perform better in school as they have more access to educational support. As the attendance rates and test scores start to decrease, so too does the state funding for the public school. 

In both Supreme Court precedents — UC v. Bakke and Grutter v. Bollinger — the court has demonstrated that they believe that a quota system for Black and Brown students, as well as having a long-term race-conscious admissions policy, is unconstitutional. I agree; I admit that affirmative action is simply a euphemism for racial preference. But since the Civil Rights movement, there has been an unfortunate paradox that has been brought to light: guaranteeing equal rights in its truest, most effective form requires going against equality. The Amendments that were made so that the Constitution extended all civil and legal protections to Black people solely protected Black people from being treated differently, resulted in progress to equality. But outlawing racial discrimination proved fruitless without a few additions. Unlike white citizens who had centuries’ worth of resources and opportunities at their beck and call, many Black and Brown children didn’t have this head start. What we need to focus on is equity, not equality. Systems need to be put in place so that Black and Brown people are not only treated in ways that would be equal to that of a White person, but occasionally better to reach the pedestal that White people sit so comfortably on. We took race off the table, only to realize that if we truly wanted to free historically oppressed groups from the cyclical consequences of systemic racism, we would need to consider race once more.

Yes, racial preference in itself is based on preference towards Black and Brown people over white or Asian applicants. Yes, in this system there are times when minorities are held to lower standards than that of a White person. But in order to reach the equitable society that we should have been in the first place, affirmative action is necessary. 

Race will always be a factor when it comes to admissions — whether it be through the proxies of class, financial, or social status — and it should be. Black and Brown students deserve a way out of the cycle that is inadequate education, and other students deserve to experience the advantages of being surrounded by those who think differently from them.