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  • Janice Sebagenzi

Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard: Is Race the Real and Only Culprit?

Dernière mise à jour : 2 juin 2020

As a highly anticipated case began trial last October 15th, Harvard University was, once more, under the spotlight. The cause? A lawsuit filed in 2014 by Edward Blum, a conservative litigator, and his organization the Students for Fair Admissions. They are arguing that Asian-Americans have been denied admission to Harvard due to discrimination. It is not a first attempt for Blum who spearheaded two similar cases in the past. One of which made it to the Supreme Court and ultimately lost (Fisher v. University of Texas).

In that particular case, Abigail Fisher, a Caucasian applicant, did not qualify for Texas’ Top 10% Plan, which guarantees admission to the top 10% of every in-state graduating high school. For the remaining places, U of T depends on different factors to select their students and race is one of them. Abigail pleaded that as a Caucasian woman, she did not meet the diversity quota and thus, was discriminated against. At the moment, with the current and previous lawsuits on the matter, many are uncertain about the agenda behind these claims.

Are we genuinely seeking inclusion for Asian-Americans or are we using them to further ideological agendas and stop affirmative action, which is seen by Blum as a threat to Caucasian students?

What is Affirmation Action?

At the heart of the issue is the concept of “affirmative action”. This concept results from the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, which intended to provide equal opportunities to minorities and women in the spheres of education and employment. It was first coined, in 1961, by President Kennedy in an executive order that directed government contractors to take “affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin”. In this case, affirmative action refers to admission policies that strive to help groups that have been historically excluded or underrepresented, gain equal access to education.

It is important to keep in mind that affirmative action and racial quotas are not equivalent as the latter, to some, defeats the entire purpose of equal opportunities. In fact, in a significant decision (Bakke v. University of California), in the 1970s, the Supreme Court ruled that colleges could consider race as one of many characteristics in an admission but could not set quotas as it would violate the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. Moreover, title VI of the 1964 Civil Act prohibits discrimination based on race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance.

A Tool Towards Inclusion or Discrimination?

The Harvard admission process is said to be a “holistic” review meaning that it takes into account a variety of aspects such as background, personal experiences, grades, awards, character, extracurricular, and athletics. Its application rating system is currently being scrutinized since the plaintiffs argue that Asian-Americans perform better in academic and extracurricular ratings but are consistently rated behind other groups for what is known as the “personal score”. The plaintiffs believe that they are not only held to higher standards than other applicants, but that Harvard puts such an emphasis on race that it forces them to meet even higher standards. The SFFA argues that taking race into account only leads to racial bias and that colorblindness admissions are more equitable.

For its part, the University argues that it would be ineffective to solely focus on one’s academic performance since it receives 40 000 applications with perfect GPAs and test scores but only accepts around 2 000 freshmen each year. Therefore, one must excel in multiple fields to stand a chance. Additionally, for supporters of affirmative action, it is the diversity of college campuses that is being threatened, as this case could lead to a more homogeneous student body. They also bring forth the argument that ignoring someone’s race is also erasing an important part of them: they would become a simple number among thousands of other. The current admitted class of 2022 at Harvard is composed at 2 % of Native Americans, 12 % of Latin/Hispanics, 15 % of African Americans, 23% of Asian-Americans, and 48% of Caucasians.

Overall, depending on how the question is being asked, some see affirmative action as a path towards more diversity and inclusion while others see it as fostering bias and inequality. However, even though race-conscious admissions could still use some work in their application and would benefit from more transparency. It is still naïve to advocate that the concept of colorblindness leads to equality as it based on the assumption that everyone begins on an equal footing. History has time and again shown that it is simply to not the case whether it concerns education, employment, housing, immigration, or the justice system.

The legacy student factor

According to Harvard’s 2013 internal review, if the school only considered academic achievement and merit, the proportion of Asian-Americans admitted would be 43% but after accounting for the college’s preference for recruiting athletes and legacy applicants, this number fell to 31%. Unfortunately, the practice of giving admission preference to legacy students, which are children of alumni, is a wide spread custom in selective universities across the U.S. . Universities argue that this encourages alumni to preserve ties with their alma mater and make donations. One can then wonder if the real issue creating discrimination is affirmative action itself or legacy admissions, which are without a doubt perpetuating socioeconomic and racial disparity.

In fact, from 2010 to 2015, Harvard admission rate for legacies was 34% while its admission for non-legacies was 6%. Consequently, legacy applicants were 6 times more likely to be admitted than those who did not have an Harvard-educated parent. Legacy applicants are also likely to be Caucasian: more than 20% of Caucasian applicants admitted to Harvard between 2010 and 2015 were legacies compared to 4.8% for African Americans, 6.6% for Asian-Americans and 7% for Hispanics.

In the end, the case is almost certain to find itself in front of the Supreme Court since both sides plan to appeal the decision. This could undeniably set a precedent for all the other universities using similar admission processes as Harvard. We will have to wait until next year to witness the fate of affirmative action in the US although, the conservative majority of the Court, may have already sealed it.

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