The Supreme Court heard arguments Oct. 31 in two cases that could strike down race-based affirmative action in college admissions nationwide.
Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), a nonprofit organization led by conservative activist Edward Blum, brought two lawsuits before the Court claiming that the use of race in the admissions process at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) is discriminatory.
Following the proceedings, The New York Times reported that the Court seemed “ready to throw out affirmative action programs” and undo decades of legal precedents upholding diversity programs in universities across the country.
Jewel Moore, a sophomore communication major and treasurer for Black Student Union (BSU), says that striking down affirmative action in higher education would be yet another setback for students of color, who are already struggling to find representation on campus.
“It’s an attack on education,” Moore said. “Black and brown children who had better grades than their white counterparts were sometimes being denied access to schools, and it’s just very important to ensure that these students have a place at universities that they may not have had before. I don’t even necessarily think that affirmative action policies have done enough.
“Being a Black person in America is not easy, being a Black woman at that. My competence is constantly being questioned, whether that’s in the classroom, in a boardroom — everywhere. Anything that I say is constantly being picked apart.”
Moore says she sees the challenges of fostering diversity and community, even under an affirmative action framework.
“Where’s the representation for Black students? Where is the home away from home for Black students?” Moore said. “We have the Black Student Union, we have the African Student Association, we have the Caribbean Student Association… But we had to create those spaces as students. Those weren’t given to us by the school. Those clubs exist only because we pushed for that. So what is the school doing for us?”
In light of deliberations of affirmative action in the Supreme Court, UB is “monitoring the issue very closely from the admissions and legal perspective,” UB spokesperson John DellaContrada said.
The university says that race and ethnicity are currently “considered” factors for selection in its admission process but not considered as “important” as other criteria such as academic GPA or standardized test scores.
Enrollment data for fall 2022 shows that while Asian enrollment has steadily grown to 14.17% this year, just 7.46% of students identify as Black and 7.3% as Hispanic.
Over a 14-year period, neither Black nor Hispanic enrollment has crossed more than 8% of the total enrolled population.
“Those numbers just prove that we’re really just accepting the bare minimum,” Brianna Dennis, a senior biology major, said. “If we’re rolling [affirmative action] back, you’re gonna see that number plummet even more when it really shouldn’t be — it should be going up instead.”
Nicolee Jimenez, a junior media studies major, says that striking down affirmative action and seeing diversity figures fall would only make it more difficult for student organizations to create safe communities and welcome experiences for students of color.
“People already don’t feel safe, like they don’t have community,” Jimenez said. “Every club or association is like a home for students of color.”
While Moore thinks affirmative action policies can do more, the sophomore is dubious that striking down race-conscious criteria from colleges’ admissions will improve college outcomes.
“I don’t necessarily think that affirmative action policies have done enough,” Moore said. “But should it be eradicated? No, because at the end of the day, it definitely was put in place for a reason. Trying to reverse that is just doing a disservice to education.”
Professor Jaekyung Lee, a faculty expert in educational policies and inequalities, echoed that sentiment, citing affirmative action policies as a crucial piece of a wider issue of systemic racial inequality in the U.S. education system.
Lee is wary of SFFA’s characterizations of affirmative policy as discriminatory to Asian Americans.
“Asian American is not a monolithic group,” Lee said. “There are many subgroups, ethnic groups in that category. So it’s very misleading to treat Asian Americans as one group.”
He doesn’t see a point in striking down affirmative action in the wider conversation of improving educational outcomes across the board.
Lee cites the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger case in the Supreme Court, which upheld affirmative action in admissions for Michigan Law School after determining that race-conscious admissions were not unconstitutional as part of a holistic admissions process — similar to the processes used by UNC and Harvard.
The Court also decided that race-consciousness ultimately served a “compelling interest” for the university and its students by improving diversity.
“Improving diversity of the student body will benefit not only those minority students of color, but also white students,” Lee said. “Ultimately, it helps students to prepare for when they work in similarly diverse environments after graduation.”
Lee hopes the Supreme Court will make similar considerations, nearly two decades after the landmark case, and urges students and parents to remain optimistic.
“I definitely hope that the Supreme Court decides to continue supporting affirmative action policies, given the severity of the racial inequalities and gaps,” Lee said. “But even if they don’t, then I’m sure that the colleges and universities will still find ways to maintain and even improve the diversity. There are other kinds of related factors that they can always consider as a proxy indicator of that.”
Parent income and education history, for example, could serve as effective criteria for universities to bridge access equity gaps for disadvantaged or underrepresented communities. Funding of U.S. schools through local property taxes, for example, provide more funding to schools in wealthier neighborhoods, a system that Lee describes as “highly unequal.”
“A lot of the inequalities come from where students just live,” Lee said. “That zip code kind of determines the quality of their learning opportunity, which is totally unacceptable.”
Lee says that COVID-19 and remote learning exasperated the disparity between low-income and high-income communities, as high-income students had more access to technology, teachers and parental support.
Lee believes that getting rid of affirmative action policy would only be warranted once racial disparities are directly addressed.
“I view affirmative action policy as a kind of temporary Band-Aid to fix the system of racial inequalities and achievement gaps,” Lee said. “Ideally, we’d fix this problem early on through better preschool programs, and better K-12 education programs for disadvantaged minority students so that by the time they get to college doors, there should be no achievement gap, no inequalities.”
In the coming months, Moore hopes that the university will play a more direct hand, whether it be in nurturing diversity or combatting hatred on campus.
She says that a sense of anguish burns fresh in the memories of Black students at UB in the fallout of last year’s Allen West controversies and the racially motivated mass shooting at an East Side Tops during the spring semester.
“That night, I cried. I cried so hard because I felt like our voices weren’t being heard and I felt like the university didn’t understand where we were coming from,” Moore said. “I understand that racism is not a cut and dry thing. Everybody is entitled to their opinion. But at the end of the day, affirmative action was created to combat racism. Although we want a world without racism, a world where we don’t acknowledge racism, where we say that racism is fake, is a figment of our imagination.”
Moore believes affirmative action and fostering a diverse student body are vital buffers against racial hatred and violence.
“When you’re not having conversations with people from other backgrounds, that can make you jaded toward others,” Moore said. “When you learn about other people, the struggles that they’ve gone through, why they are the way that they are, it helps you be empathetic, sympathetic to their situations. And without diversity, you’re not going to get that.”
Kyle Nguyen is a senior news/features editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Kyle Nguyen is a senior news/features editor at The Spectrum.