A Victory for Race-Conscious Admissions
On Tuesday, a federal judge ruled that Harvard’s race-conscious admissions policy does not intentionally discriminate against Asian Americans. The advocacy group Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) brought the lawsuit against the university hoping to overturn Supreme Court precedent, Fisher v. Texas, which allowed the consideration of race in college admissions but prohibited racial quotas. The group alleged that Harvard had used an unconstitutional admissions process that rejected qualified Asian American students while admitting other students of inferior merit.
In her 130-page decision, Federal District Court Judge Allison D. Burroughs cleared the university of each of SFFA’s four primary charges: that Harvard deliberately discriminated against Asian Americans, that it racially balanced its classes, that race was a central criterion in Harvard’s admissions policies, and that Harvard considered race without first pursuing diversity via race-neutral means. This result represents a tremendous victory in the fight to preserve race-conscious admissions policies in higher education. But it’s not likely to be the final word. The decision will be appealed, and many expect the case to reach the Supreme Court.
Students For Fair Admissions was convened by long-time conservative activist Ed Blum, who has made it his life’s mission to dismantle race-conscious policies. He was also the destructive force behind Shelby County v. Holder, the case that resulted in the gutting of critical protections in the Voting Rights Act. As a consequence, the nation has suffered the sharpest rise in instances of voter suppression since the Jim Crow era. This is Blum’s third case challenging race-conscious measures in higher education, with his previous attempts targeting admission policies at the University of Texas-Austin in 2012 and the University of North Carolina, which is currently ongoing.
SFFA’s attack on Harvard’s admissions process was based on self-selected pools of individuals and purposefully choosing not to look at their program as a whole. Strangely enough, the pools not selected are those which have disproportionately benefited white applicants the most. That is the cross section of athletes, legacies, those on the Dean’s interest list, and children of faculty and staff. As Judge Burroughs pointed out, these students makeup 30% of Harvard's admitted class and “are disproportionately white.” SFFA’s decision not to impugn this dimension of Harvard’s policies is clear evidence that the group’s true motive is not protecting the interests of the Asian American students it claims to represent. Instead, this tack is consistent with Blum’s long-standing project of fighting against what AAPF Cofounder Luke Charles Harris calls the diminished over-representation of white students in institutions of higher education.
As firm believers that affirmative action policies like those at Harvard remain urgently necessary, we at the African American Policy Forum applaud the court’s decision. This outcome fortifies our abiding conviction that one of the only ways to redress structural issues of discrimination and injury is to protect the race-conscious measures designed to take these systemic challenges into account. Now, more than ever, the moment beckons to challenge the gatekeepers of the baseline traditions and practices of American institutions. From the hiring criteria of our workplaces to the entry criteria of our institutions of higher education, these conventions must be interrogated. The tide may well be turning against elite preferences in higher education. And this case could well ride that wave to ultimately build a movement that calls for serious interrogation of procedures that continue to impede a fair assessment of the capabilities and promise of people of color, or so we hope.
The AAPF remains committed to protecting and promoting race-conscious policies in higher education, the workplace, and the public sector. We will continue to do everything within our capacity to help facilitate and contribute to all effective multipronged collaborative efforts with organizations to protect affirmative action and ask for your support to help us keep this commitment.