Opinion: Affirmative action may die, but racial diversity in higher education need not

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Jackie Hu/The Occidental

In front of the U.S. Supreme Court is currently a case known as “Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) v. Harvard,” which is revisiting the legality of affirmative action programs. Affirmative action aims to increase representation of minority groups in higher education institutions — the controlling precedent, Grutter v. Bollinger, allows schools to consider racial diversity among their variety of holistic admissions criteria. SFFA argues that Grutter was wrongly decided and that any consideration of racial diversity is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause and the Civil Rights Act, specifically pointing to the case of Asian American applicants to elite universities such as Harvard.

Regarding the specifics of the case, and this is entirely my personal opinion, I believe that Harvard does use racially discriminatory admissions practices. Asian applicants were systematically rated lower on personality traits, despite having similar excellent extracurricular scores. Additionally, though this is not a subject of the lawsuit, a plurality of white students at Harvard are admitted through backchannels such as legacy admissions or as children of faculty, rather than regular admissions. I am of course biased — I’m South Asian and the child of well-off Bay Area professionals, and adjustments or repeals to affirmative action would benefit members of my group.

Even if Asian students didn’t have a “soft quota” at Harvard, as some of the data seem to suggest, I’m hesitant to say that race conscious admissions are an unmitigated good. After all, if university admission officers can see race, they could easily go the other way and use that knowledge of race to discriminate against minorities rather than in favor of diversity. This isn’t to say that we should get rid of race conscious admissions entirely, but we should be careful with them.

I think proponents of affirmative action are correct — we should strive for a more diverse college student body, and measures such as race conscious admissions may play a role (key word: may). However, I think in a country such as the United States with a vast array of ethnicities and different levels of college attainment, health, incomes, etc., focusing our attempts at reducing educational inequities through affirmative action at the college admissions stage seems particularly narrow. Additionally, race conscious affirmative action is quite unpopular — a ballot proposition to reinstate it in California lost by 14 percentage points on the same ballot where Joe Biden won the state by 29 percentage points.

Only about 30 percent of 18-24 year olds are enrolled in four-year colleges; this value increases to 41 percent when including two-year colleges, but this is still not a majority. The fact that most people in this age range don’t attend college, in a manner that falls on African Americans and Hispanics more than whites and Asians, means that educational inequities are emerging well before the college admissions stage — and diversity in colleges hinges on this.

So, what should we do? K-12 education reform might be a fraught topic, but there are some dead simple and plainly uncontroversial targets that we should set our sights on — namely, environmental and health disparities.

Consider sleep — various studies have found that starting schools later increases academic achievement among students, primarily by increasing the amount of sleep that students receive. Additionally, we know that air pollution is correlated with negative outcomes even after controlling for socioeconomic status, race and other factors, and similar results were found for noise pollution. Since sleep deprivationair pollution and noise pollution affect lower income people of color more than higher income white Americans, actions such as removing urban highways (which are the source of much noise and air pollution) and starting schools later will increase educational attainment among lower income African Americans and Hispanics more than for higher income whites and Asians.

Of course, this might not be a direct line to diversity in higher education, but it makes logical sense — reducing educational inequities in early stages has a knock-on effect, up through college admissions and acceptances. Best of all is that it doesn’t require explicit race consciousness, so bad actors can’t strike it down.

We need not stop at environmental and health disparities — giving money to parents via the Child Tax Credit and re-zoning high opportunity suburbs alleviate poverty and segregation, increasing opportunities for better education (especially for lower income people of color), thereby increasing the chance of attending college down the road.

I think we should strive for a society where race or birth isn’t the determining factor in the level of one’s opportunity. Race conscious admissions, for all their benefits, feel to me to be a capitulation that we won’t achieve something resembling this dream. Equalizing opportunity more broadly — by re-zoning high opportunity suburbs, fighting air and noise pollution and alleviating poverty through cash transfers — is not only an equalizing measure for higher education, but for all stages of the life cycle.

Contact Avinash Iyer at iyera@oxy.edu.