The Supreme Court may be on the verge of ending the consideration of race in college admissions after more than five decades of affirmative action. In two separate cases, plaintiffs suing Harvard and the University of North Carolina argue that favoring minority applicants — ostensibly meant to ensure fair treatment for applicants of all ethnicities — discriminates against Asian American and white students. With a 6-3 conservative majority, the court is expected to rule against both institutions by the end of June, scrapping the practice and potentially altering the face of higher education in America. Here, in order to better understand what is at stake, we consider the issue from the differing perspectives of two experts.


A case for ending affirmative action

The dirty secret is that racial preferences provide cover for an admissions system that mostly benefits the wealthy. The current framework is broadly unpopular, highly vulnerable to legal challenges under federal civil rights laws, disproportionately helps upper-middle-class students of color and pits working-class people of different races against one another. Yet major universities cling to the status quo because it is easier financially. They act as if this is the only way to promote racial diversity, but that simply isn’t true. It’s just better for them.

By zeroing in on economically disadvantaged students, affirmative-action programs could still address the effects of slavery, segregation and redlining. The wealth gap between Black and white households, accumulated over generations, is enormous. White workers typically earn 1.6 times as much as Black workers, but their household wealth is eight times higher. Housing discrimination has put middle-class Black families in neighborhoods with higher poverty rates than low-income white families. Using data on factors like these, admissions committees can identify students who succeed academically despite difficult odds. They’re disproportionately likely to be Black or Latino, but admissions policies need not take account of their race.

Adapted from “The Affirmative Action that Colleges Really Need,” by Richard D. Kahlenberg, in The Atlantic. Kahlenberg is an expert witness on race-neutral alternatives for Students for Fair Admission in its lawsuit against Harvard College, author of “The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action,” and editor of “The Future of Affirmative Action.” 

An argument for racial preference

I got into Yale University and then Harvard Law School because of affirmative action. Not only has that improved my professional life, but also, I believe my presence on campus, along with a critical mass of other Black and brown students, was a benefit to the school. We provided an integral part of the education of our white colleagues. 

In law school, we read a case about the right to a hearing when welfare benefits are cut off. When the professor asked why this was important, a white woman said it probably wouldn’t make a difference in the outcome, but it would be “fun” for the person who received the benefits. Black students schooled her that there’s nothing fun about pleading with bureaucrats for adequate food and housing. Now, as a professor, I can’t imagine teaching stop and frisk without Black male students to say what it’s like to experience that humiliation in the real world.

The Supreme Court’s forthcoming decision will likely have immediate and catastrophic consequences. Public and private universities will resegregate. Black and brown students will no longer be present in substantial numbers at selective predominantly white institutions. Every time my students of color step into a classroom, they demonstrate their extraordinary abilities. When they are no longer present, the connotation is that they are not as capable — one of the insidious lies behind white supremacy.

Adapted from a column by Paul Butler in The Washington Post. A former federal prosecutor, he is also the Albert Brick professor in law at Georgetown University, a legal analyst on MSNBC, and author of “Let’s Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice” and “Chokehold: Policing Black Men.” In 2017-18, he was the Bennett Boskey visiting professor at Harvard Law School. 

This story appears in the January/February issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.