June 30, 2023 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
The US Supreme Court did not outlaw bias in college admissions
It outlawed a kind of bias, one that its rightwing supermajority dislikes.
The first thing you need to know about Thursday’s ruling by the US Supreme Court, striking down the use of race in college admissions, is this: affirmative action affected a small group of people, and would have continued to affect a small group of people had the high court decided to leave it be.
Remember that we’re talking about elite institutions. Very few colleges are so picky that they need to use race to cull applicants. As Rod Graham once said, most schools are clamoring for students. Only the elites “are in a position to use race as a factor and choose some students over others,” he said. “Your average State U, liberal arts college or local community college simply does not have that luxury.”
The second thing you need to know is that all colleges, elites included, will continue racially diversifying their student bodies, because it’s in their interest. They won’t do it as they have been, now that the justices have decided. The means will change. The goals, however, will not.
Bias in favor of makebelieve must replace bias in favor of trying to make things right.
The third thing you need to know is that the Supreme Court did not strike down affirmative action. Action that is taken in the affirmative will continue whenever the sons and daughters of the very obscenely rich apply for admission to the very obscenely rich institutions of higher learning that their very obscenely rich parents went to.
This third thing is, I think, the most important thing.
The Supreme Court did not take up the question of admissions policies that give a leg up to the sons and daughters of the very obscenely rich. It took up the question of admissions policies that give a leg up to nonwhite people. It did not ban bias. Instead, it banned a kind of bias – a kind that’s disliked by this court’s rightwing supermajority.
Bias in favor of the very obscenely rich may continue.
Bias in favor of nonwhite people must stop.
In writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts seems blind to actions that are invariably taken in the affirmative for the sons and daughters of the very obscenely rich. Students, he said, should be considered on the merits alone, not the color of their skin. “Our constitutional history does not tolerate that choice,” he said.
But students are never considered on the merits alone.
Harvard’s acceptance rate, for instance, was 6 percent between 2014 and 2019. (By contrast, the acceptance rate at the University of Connecticut was 55.6 percent in 2021.) Of all the teenagers who applied, Harvard accepted less than a tenth of them. Of that number, the sons and daughters of the very obscenely rich represented 33 percent.
Contrary to Roberts’ belief, our constitutional history has tolerated bias and continues to. The question is, and always has been, bias in favor of whom and why? The question is now closed to nonwhite people.
Is affirmative action reverse-racism? No. It arose from the 1960s, a time when one kind of politics defeated another kind – when agents of the civil rights movement defeated agents of Jim Crow apartheid. The hope was to ameliorate some of the injuries of slavery and its vestiges.
According to Allison Wiltz, affirmative action aimed initially “to ensure equal employment opportunities among contractors working for the federal government.” Instead of “retroactively mitigating discrimination,” Allison wrote, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations ordered contractors to “take affirmative action.”
In context, it’s clear that the consideration of race in college admissions is the point of affirmative action. It is not reverse racism. It is an attempt to amend for the country’s history of racial discrimination.
That’s the problem for affirmative action’s critics. Their aim has always been to replace programs that consider race in an attempt to amend for the country’s history of racial discrimination with programs that are “colorblind.” That way any attempt to amend for the country’s history of racial discrimination seems like (reverse) racial discrimination.
Americans have never been colorblind. We only makebelieve we are. With this ruling, the court gives makebelieve the force of law. Not only may bias in favor of the very obscenely rich continue. Bias in favor of makebelieve must replace bias in favor of trying to make things right.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.