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Affirmative Action: If You Care About Ending Racism, Work to End Race-Conscious College Admission

The Supreme Court is due to announce its opinion in Fisher v. the University of Texas, a case that involves the central question:Is race-based admission facially valid and permissible under the Fourteenth Amendment? As a Longhorn, I run the risk of being too vocal with my opinion on such a public forum, but it’s precisely because of my status as a student at the university that I feel obliged to speak up on this important issue. Based on the Grutter v. Bollinger decision, race can be used as one of the several factors to advance a university’s compelling educational interest in obtaining a diverse student body. Legal issues surrounding “critical mass” and the legitimacy of Grutter itself require an extensive analysis in their own right. In my view, more simply, race goes into the bucket of strict scrutiny for the Supreme Court: Even if the case is proven “compelling,” it should nonetheless be “narrowly tailored.” My view is that UT lacks a claim to either.

At its core, a race-conscious admission policy essentially asks innocent contemporaries to readdress historic wrongs in which that they could claim no direct involvement or sanction. At the risk of sounding too crass, let me ask this: Is it fair for us to attempt to demand reparations from Germans today for the atrocity committed under the Third Reich? I think not. However, a race-conscious admission policy even with the best intentions may have the effect of instilling guilt in the minds of whites while stirring up feelings of injustice and dissonance among Asians and other minorities. This undermines racial integration, cohesion, and progress, hallmarks of the civil rights movement. From Plessy v. Ferguson to Brown v. Board of Ed, from the Civil War Amendments to the Civil Rights Act, from Martin Luther King Jr. to Barack Obama, from a formerly segregated school to being one of the most diverse universities in the country, our nation and our college campuses have collectively endured a shameful past of human subjugation and racial prejudice, and yet we have overcome de jure racism in modern times. Today’s race-conscious admission tramples on this great legacy in the name of “diversity.” Race-conscious admission has also raised inquiries into Ivy League schools’ de facto quotas against Asians, similar to the ones imposed against Jews in the early 20th century.

On a broader level, thinking about affirmative action should make us ask, what is the role and purpose of higher education? What kind of diversity do we find most “compelling” for a university to promote? At a university with more than 51,000 students, wouldn’t it be more appropriate for the administration to promote diversity of thoughts, ideas, and beliefs over diversity of skin? Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa published their landmark study Academically Adrift in 2011, which concludes as much as 36% of undergraduates complete college with no appreciable gains “in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills.” Yet the university has the notion that by dumping students of different ethnicity into the same classroom will somehow magically produce academic excellence and boost intellectual exploration?

With the university’s horrific and indeed morally deficient history of segregation, emotions that surround the present issue are understandable. However, despite our best intentions, we are mere products of history. What puzzles me are the DREAMers, who often remind us that children of illegal immigrants came to the U.S. through no fault of their own, but are so unforgiving of historic racism that happened prior to our births. What puzzles me even more are young social-justice advocates who supposedly view marriage equality as a generational cause but seem so ready to denigrate their own generation that overwhelmingly supports interracial dating and marriage, nine out of ten.

A race-conscious admission should by definition produce a more racially diverse student body, and yet UT’s Top Ten Percent policy does a better job advancing the goal than a race-conscious policy. One wonders, Why the need for a race-conscious admission if diversity can be achieved through a race-neutral system?

The university’s primary defense is that race is only one among several factors being considered for “holistic review,” so the policy is not racially based. This logic is equivalent to a professor grading you on participation where “attendance” is only one of the many factors being considered for your grade. Try skipping a few classes and see if non-attendance makes a dent on your final participation grade! Attendance is as integral to participation in that case as race is to a race-conscious admission policy. To dilute the fact is to dodge the issue, an issue that can be summed up in Justice Thurgood Marshall’s depiction of race in the NAACP brief on Brown v. Board of Education: “Distinctions by race are so evil, so arbitrary and invidious that a state, bound to defend the equal protection of the laws must not invoke them in any public sphere.”  

In my college experience, I notice that it is not uncommon for students to cluster behind protective veils of their own ethnicity and cultures, an unfortunate but comprehensible reality, routinely observable on the UT campus. If the university truly cares about diversity in the interest of student learning, it should proactively implement programs and activities that integrate various ethnic and cultural groups instead of dividing them through a scattered smorgasbord of ethnically oriented programs. Yet if the university feels no need to invest in the educational panacea of “diversity within diversity” for the purposes of learning, then the educational rationale behind Fisher ceases to be “compelling” after all. If that marker cannot be achieved, then one must ask if the present policy is indeed necessary.

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