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The Sad Death of Affirmative Action

Of all the questions that were batted about during Monday’s Supreme Court arguments on affirmative action, the only one that seemed to get to the heart of the matter was asked, repeatedly, by Justice Clarence Thomas. Does diversity confer any actual educational benefits? For decades, the legal justification for considering race as a factor in college admissions has rested on the idea that students learn better, and more broadly, from being around classmates from different backgrounds, whether geographic or racial.

I do not feel the need to debate the question of whether or not diversity is meaningful to a person’s education, mostly because I think the answer is pretty self-evident and broadly accepted. The more pointed legal question—whether the benefits of diversity actually provide a compelling enough reason to practice racial preferences in admissions—is certainly more contested. But it is worth noting just how the attorneys for the University of North Carolina and Harvard argued for the benefits of diversity on their campuses. When Thomas asked Ryan Park, the solicitor general of North Carolina, his go-to question, Park talked about a study on stock trading that showed diverse stock-trading units performed better than more homogenous ones because they were more resistant to “groupthink.” Seth Waxman, the attorney for Harvard, declared a bit theatrically that the fate of the country depended on “leaders who have enjoyed wide exposure to students as diverse as the nation itself.”

All of this might be true. But it’s clear that what’s at stake isn’t a vision of social and racial justice that would ameliorate inequalities for a broad swath of people but, rather, a fight for spots in the élite ranks of society. We want diverse stock traders, corporate-boardroom members, and tenured professors. While it’s important to have diversity in any space, I think it’s crucial to clearly detail what, exactly, Harvard is making the case for. The university is arguing that it has to use racial preferences in admissions in order to maintain a helpful amount of diversity on campus. It’s also, by extension, defending its entire admissions policy, which includes seemingly looser standards for athletes, donors, and legacy admits.

Harvard’s logic is based entirely on what is allowed by law, which is that race can only be used in a “narrowly tailored” way. The definition of this term has changed, but in Grutter v. Bollinger, the Court said schools must engage in “serious, good faith consideration of workable race-neutral alternatives that will achieve the diversity the university seeks.” To prove this, schools like Harvard are supposed to show that there aren’t reasonable other ways to create diversity that do not consider an applicant’s race, such as socioeconomic affirmative action or implementing something similar to the University of Texas’s system, which admits the top ten per cent of students at any school in the state.

This line of inquiry set up a layup for the plaintiffs, which Cameron Norris, one of the attorneys for Students for Fair Admissions—the conservative legal organization fighting to end affirmative action—gladly took in his address on Monday. Norris argued that Harvard, in fact, is not diverse in any way other than racially. This, ultimately, is true not only in the Ivy League but at all sorts of exclusive colleges that typically practice racial preferences in admissions. A good thing to remember here is that the majority of college students in America attend schools that accept the overwhelming majority of their applicants, making the question of racial preferences mostly moot. For example, Harvard’s Black population is around fifteen per cent of the student body. By comparison, twenty-two per cent of the students at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston are Black. Harvard practices affirmative action. Bunker Hill accepts all of its applicants, and so has no need or ability to balance their classes based on high-minded ideas about diversity.

The diversity that Harvard promotes, by the very fact that it has to be within Harvard’s institutions, will be for wealthy high achievers, the majority of whom have led immensely privileged lives. The following numbers cannot be repeated enough: two-thirds of Harvard students come from families in the top twenty per cent of income earners. A full three per cent of students come from the top 0.1 per cent, compared with 4.5 per cent from the bottom twenty per cent. And bias toward wealthy students extends across all racial categories. An article for the Harvard Crimson’s magazine, published in 2020, looked at the relative underrepresentation of students who identify as “Generational African American” (G.A.A.), compared with the children of more recent immigrants from Africa. “If we were to count the number of GAA students at Harvard who were descended from enslaved people, came from low income backgrounds, first generation, four grandparents descended from enslaved people, I feel like that number would be so low,” one of those students said. “Like, maybe one person. It’s just so, so, so low.”

Read entire article at The New Yorker