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Making elite colleges white again

Suing to eliminate consideration of race in college admissions undoes decades of progress

Photo of Andre Perry

Degree of  Interest

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A federal court ruled last week in Students for Fair Admissions vs Harvard that Harvard University can continue considering race in its admissions processes. Among the many different attributes the Ivy League university looks for in a potential student, such as academic potential, extracurricular activities, community service, maturity, ethical decision-making and new points of view, is the applicant’s race.

This should not be a big deal, bearing in mind that Harvard historically considered race when it came to admitting students, or at least, considered one race — white — and one gender — male. Until 1977, when the school first allowed “sex-blind admissions,” the ratio of men to women at Harvard was 4 to1. Predictably, the Graduate School of Education was the first to admit women, in 1920. Would-be women lawyers had to wait until 1950 to gain a chance at admission to the prestigious Harvard Law School. Black male matriculates are sprinkled throughout Harvard’s history, but the overwhelming majority of its graduates have been white men.

It turns out that other people of varying backgrounds have much to offer a democracy. President John F. Kennedy believed that when he introduced the concept of affirmative action in 1961 in the context of government contracts.

In higher education, the benefits that white Americans gain from segregation and discrimination persist into adulthood, in the school district they attend, the preference alumni receive, and in wealth disparities between racial groups. However, some entitled white people feel that any black person Harvard accepts is claiming a spot that is stolen — regardless of the centuries of discrimination practiced against black people who never got their shot at elite white colleges.

The plaintiffs in the Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) case argued that Harvard’s admissions practices discriminated against Asian-American applicants. Don’t let their argument fool you. This case is about preserving whiteness as a central feature of college admissions. Asian-Americans represented roughly five percent of the U.S. population in 2017 but approximately 22 percent of students admitted to Harvard that year. In her September 30 decision, federal judge Allison D. Burroughs ruled that Harvard’s admissions criteria does not discriminate against Asian American students.

SFFA’s history provides a clue to the political considerations underpinning its suit against Harvard. The organization’s leader, conservative activist Edward Blum, opposes the use of race in public policy. Blum previously brought a lawsuit against the University of Texas admissions policy, filed on the basis that its admissions policy discriminated against a white woman who was denied admission in 2008 (a suit that ignored the many black applicants with similar GPAs who were also denied admission). He also sponsored a lawsuit that led to the Supreme Court overturning key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Blum used a claim of discrimination against Asian-Americans as a proxy to undo colleges’ attempts to authentically address the impacts of historical discrimination that institutions must tackle.

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Colleges and universities can heave a sigh of relief: A ruling that struck down Harvard’s use of race would undoubtedly have upended admissions offices across the country, restricting the institutional autonomy of colleges and universities to select students, an autonomy that has, historically, benefitted white students. One of the expert witnesses in the SFFA case, Duke University economics professor Peter Arcidiacono, testified that 43 percent of the white students admitted fell into at least one preferential category, a list that includes recruited athletes, legacy students, those on the dean’s interest list, and children of faculty and staff (ALDCs). In contrast, only 16 percent of African American, Asian American and Hispanic students admitted received preferential ALDC consideration. These stats are in a newly published study led by Arcidiacono. Any argument, like that presented by SFFA, that claims affirmative admissions processes are unfair must factor in the admissions of legacy students, which benefit primarily white students.

Wealthy white students have access to elite colleges. They are not wanting for slots in top schools and they are generally not discriminated against. The Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce reported that enrollment among the 468 best-funded and most selective four-year institutions in 2009 was 75 percent white. Likewise, the report found that black and Hispanic students represented approximately 37 percent of enrollment at the 3,250 lowest-funded community colleges and four-year universities. The current composition of schools is undoubtedly the vestige of a segregated past.

This year, the Pell Institute, an education think tank that conducts research on first-generation college students, and PennAHEAD, a University of Pennsylvania research group, found that among the 2009 cohort of ninth graders who graduated from high school as seniors in 2013, students from the highest socioeconomic quintiles were eight times as likely to attend a “most” or “highly” selective college as those from the lower economic quintile (33 percent versus 4 percent). Moreover, students who attended four‐year institutions were more likely to graduate, giving them more opportunities than their peers who attended two-year colleges.

However, because they see some black students in selective college classrooms, some white people feel they are losing control — over admissions decisions as well as the narrative that they’ve achieved academic success purely through grit and self-motivation.

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To be clear, higher education has never been a meritocratic sector that sorts individuals by racially blind application processes. For more than 300 years, from the time Harvard first opened its doors in 1636, to 1954 when the Supreme Court ruled that the separate but equal doctrine was unconstitutional, college admissions offices reserved seats in colleges and universities for white people, mostly men. Colleges have always been afforded the autonomy of selecting who they want to teach; only when that autonomy is used as an antiracist tool to advance democracy does it become a problem.

A lack of diversity on campus created the kind of racial ignorance that allowed those groomed in such institutions to view the open mockery of black Americans as harmless. The reality of this legitimized racism is revealed every time an old photo of a current elected official in blackface is found (see: Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, former Florida Secretary of State Mike Ertel, Republican state Rep. Anthony Sabatini). These are the people who make our laws. And people wonder why we see racial disparities in who enters and graduates from institutions that are mostly white.

The fight against the use of affirmative action in higher education isn’t about discrimination; it has always been about preserving colleges’ long-standing tradition of privileging white people. Legal scholars expect the plaintiffs to appeal the ruling, and that the case will eventually reach the Supreme Court. Sadly, until white people have complete and unfettered access to elite colleges and universities, SFFA and others won’t stop pursuing lawsuits.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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