The Supreme Court’s decision to get rid of race-conscious admissions will do more harm than good for the AAPI community.
Credit: Associated Press
On June 29th, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down race-conscious affirmative action admission policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina. The 6-3 landmark decision overturns long-standing precedents maintained for decades by slim majorities in the Supreme Court. As a result, it eliminates the capacity of both public and private colleges and universities to carry out a practice widely regarded as necessary: taking race into account when determining the admission of qualified applicants.
At the heart of the case against Harvard and UNC was the argument that race-based admissions unfairly benefits Black, Latino and Native American applicants while discriminating against Asian applicants. This is unsurprising, as Asian Americans have long been at the center of debates around affirmative action. And yet, a 2023 study by the Pew Research Center indicates that the majority of Asian Americans support affirmative action. The reality is that many of us in the AAPI community are deeply saddened by the Supreme Court's decision to disregard four decades of legal precedent that affirmed the constitutionality of race-conscious admissions in higher education. This ruling will undoubtedly have an immediate effect of reducing the diversity within student bodies, which is a cause for great concern. So how did we get here?
How did affirmative action in higher education become an “Asian American” issue?
Edward Blum and SFFA
The case against affirmative action was brought to the Supreme Court by the conservative activist group Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), pioneered by conservative legal strategist Edward Blum. Blum is not a lawyer, but he has initiated more than 24 cases with the singular aim of eliminating the concept of race from America's legal system since the 1990s. Notably, eight of these cases have reached the Supreme Court. He was behind Shelby v. Holder, a 2013 landmark case that overturned aspects of the Voting Rights Act and had drastic effects for voters of color across America. In 2016, Blum orchestrated an unsuccessful challenge to race-conscious college admissions programs in Fisher v. University of Texas, in which Abigail Fisher, a white woman who applied to UT Austin, claimed that she had been denied admission to the university on the basis of her race. As the case was failing in Fisher, Blum looked to project a new face onto the issue of affirmative action, saying he needed “Asian plaintiffs.”
Edward Blum, director of Students for Fair Admissions, Credit: Associated Press
To this end, he established Students for Fair Admissions, exclusively composed of Mr. Blum, Abigail Fisher and Richard Fisher, Abigail's father. With SFFA, Blum enlisted his plaintiffs and initiated lawsuits against Harvard and the University of North Carolina. Only this time, the argument wouldn’t be that affirmative action was discriminatory against white people; instead, Blum and his supporters acted under the guise of representing the interests of Asian American students going through the college admissions process. In a deliberate change of strategy, Blum leveraged a large network of conservative Asian American activists and donors and filed two separate lawsuits — SFFA v. Harvard and SFFA v. The University of North Carolina — on the grounds of racial discrimination against Asian American applicants due to race-conscious admissions.
Why We Still Need Affirmative Action
A thinly veiled attempt to pit AAPI and other minority communities against each other, SFFA’s cases conveniently leave white applicants out of the discussion entirely, despite the fact that affirmative action has historically been the most beneficial to white women.
It is also worth noting that ALDC admissions, referring to athletes, legacies students on the dean’s list —who are primarily relatives of major donors, and children of faculty and staff— are still very much legal. The problem with this is that the majority of ALDC applicants are white and financially well-off. In 2022, 67.8% of admitted ALDC applicants in Harvard were white. This is a direct contradiction to the purpose of race-conscious admissions programs, which aim to foster vibrant and diverse college campuses.
None of this is to say that anti-Asian bias does not exist within higher education. Admissions officers often view AAPI applicants as monolithic, passive or “stereotypically Asian” (meaning high-achieving academically with less individuality). However, targeting affirmative action does not eliminate these issues. Blum's objective does not involve advocating for universities to address any implicit biases that exist against Asian Americans in their admissions practices, nor does he urge them to take measures to acknowledge the holistic experiences of Asian-American applicants. Instead, his argument seeks to undermine the accomplishments of students from underrepresented minority groups and creates a wedge between communities of color. In fact, there is little to no empirical evidence to suggest that removing affirmative action policies helps Asian American students get into college. In California, for example, where affirmative action has been banned for over a decade, there was no significant boost in Asian-American enrollment. There was, however, a sharp decline in the number of black and Latino students that were admitted.
Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote it best in her dissent from the majority opinion: “deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life.”
Avoiding discussions about race does not eliminate discrimination; instead, it perpetuates the advantages held by white applicants by disregarding the pervasive influence of inequality.
By striking down affirmative action, the Supreme Court has all but guaranteed that underrepresented minority applicants, especially Black, Latino and Native American students, will continue to be underrepresented in higher education. It is true that affirmative action was never supposed to be a permanent solution; it has its fair share of inconsistencies and problems. But dismantling race-conscious admissions practices entirely does nothing to address systemic racism at the university level. It simply pretends it isn’t there.
Vrithi Takkalapalli is a first-year biochemistry and English major, and an online writer for Rowdy Magazine. She loves Thai tea, the NYT crossword, and all things pop culture.