Few things are more unsettling to a privileged individual than feeling at a disadvantage. Privilege has a way of hiding itself in day-to-day life, and it is most felt when taken away or challenged.
Affirmative action is a policy against privilege. It allows university hiring and admissions offices to factor in race when considering the value of an applicant. And it comes as no surprise that it’s now a target in racialized America.
Edward Blum, a conservative legal strategist, has set affirmative action in his sights. With a silver tongue and a Supreme Court case victory under his belt, he hopes to erase the policy from the higher education system.
In a 2017 interview with The New York Times, Blum claimed his endeavors aimed to eradicate all advantages and disadvantages of race from American life.
“Most Americans don’t want race to be part of your application to college,” Blum said. “They don’t want the police to use race as a profiling tool to prevent crime. They don’t want prosecutors to use race in the makeup of a jury. Your race and your ethnicity should not be something used to help you or harm you in your life’s endeavors.”
With such an argument, it’s easy to feel like he has a point. Blum believes affirmative action negatively impacts white and Asian people. On closer examination, however, the dark underbelly of his position becomes clear. For Blum’s stance to make sense, the racial hierarchy would have to be flipped, with white people at the bottom. That stance is unequivocally wrong — schools currently implementing affirmative action still disproportionately admit more white students than anyone else. Affirmative action is designed to give underprivileged applicants of color an even playing field.
Students for Fair Admissions, a group Blum founded, is arguing Black and Latinx students have a higher chance of being accepted into Harvard than their white and Asian peers. The crux of the case is the use of a “personal” rating in Harvard’s admission system, which grades the intangibles of an applicant, often including race and background.
When applying to a university with a similar affirmative action policy, ticking the box for Asian or white can feel like stepping on your own toes. If the field isn’t required, some students may even choose to omit their race or flat out lie.
So why not get rid of race, gender, sex, sexuality and anything else besides your grades and accomplishments? The answer is white communities still retain significant advantages leading to higher test scores and more academic opportunities. A student from an underresourced school may not have had academic clubs such as Model United Nations or Academic Decathlon, but there would be no way to know with only their grades considered in the application.
In universities with affirmative action, results are still underwhelming. Black and Latinx students continue to be underrepresented. At Harvard, Latinx students make up 12.3 percent of the class of 2022, despite Latinx individuals making up 22 percent of the college-aged population in 2016.
Affirmative action is already removed from many universities, including all campuses in the UC system since 1996. The consequences are immense — the percentage of Black students at UC Berkeley dropped from 7.8 percent in 1997 to 3.8 percent in 2013.
Discrimination remains a solid bedrock of American society. Race is not the only factor, which is why affirmative action extends beyond race.
Applying to college as a middle-class straight white male can feel like adding weights to your shoes, but being born a low-income queer person of color means arriving into this world with a ball and chain around your ankles.
It may be frustrating to imagine “losing your spot” at an Ivy League school to someone with the same GPA and test scores because they are Black or Latinx. However, these students are often without many of the basic privileges their white — and to some degree, Asian — peers enjoy.
Blum’s efforts run counter to what the university experience should be. College is not just about graduating with a degree, but about seeing the truths of American life. A diverse student population is paramount to a true educational experience. You can get a degree from a majority white campus, but the experience will be devoid of many of the aspects that make higher education valuable.
If Blum wins the Supreme Court case, it won’t just affect Harvard. Admissions for students of color could drop across the country. Diversity is a cornerstone of an American university education, and affirmative action is not only good policy, it’s necessary policy.