October 12, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Who needs affirmative action when we have racism?

Leveraging white power can produce the same results.

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On October 31, the United States Supreme Court will hear arguments on race-based affirmative action. Two lawsuits have been brought against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina by the organization Students for Fair Admissions, a “nonprofit membership group … [that believes] that racial classifications and preferences in college admissions are unfair, unnecessary and unconstitutional.” Students for Fair Admissions was founded by conservative activist Edward Blum.   

I expect the practice to be banned, but quite frankly, I don’t think the Supreme Court’s decision matters for colleges as much as we think.

You will be hearing more about this in the coming weeks. The commentary will revolve around the pros and cons of affirmative action. Its supporters will argue that it helps colleges and universities build a diverse student body (this is the actual purpose of AA) and that it redresses some of the historical wrongs visited upon people of color. Its detractors will argue that it is reverse discrimination against Asians and white people, and it places Black and Hispanic students in schools they are not prepared for academically.

I want to take a different approach. 

I expect the practice to be banned, but quite frankly, I don’t think the Supreme Court’s decision matters for colleges as much as we think.

Most institutions – from small liberal arts colleges to large state universities – are usually clamoring for students. Whether or not a college has an ideological commitment to affirmative action, only the top colleges are in a position to use race as a factor and choose some students over others. 

Your average State U, liberal arts college or local community college simply does not have that luxury. They take what they can get. 

Given this, the percentage of affirmative action students on our college campuses is probably quite low. Numbers are not publicly available, so I did a few “back of the napkin” calculations on the top 50 most selective post-secondary institutions

The total enrollment for those schools is about 600,000. Some of these schools on this list are University of California schools that are prohibited from using race in admissions, and some schools that use affirmative action are not in this top 50, including one of the schools named in the upcoming Supreme Court case, UNC. But the idea here is just to give the reader a sense of scale. 

Of those 600,000, I needed to understand what percentage of students are there because of an affirmative action decision. According to court documents submitted by Harvard, “eliminating race as a factor in admissions, without taking any remedial measures, would reduce African American representation at Harvard from 14 percent to 6 percent and Hispanic representation from 14 percent to 9 percent.” 

This suggests that 13 percent of the student population on Harvard’s campus is there because their race benefitted them. And so at the 50 most selective schools, about 73,000 students – 13 percent of 600,000 – are there because of affirmative action. 

Let’s double, no, triple that number to about 220,000. This is a generous overestimate. But if we have a total US higher education population of 19.4 million students, then the affirmative action population amounts to a mere 1.1 percent of the student population.

It’s even less significant than the raw percentage. The “bump” these students get is simply moving from one good school to a slightly better school. And those that were bumped? Well, I suspect they ended up going to a school that was not their first choice, but still a good choice. 

A supporter of affirmative action may claim that even though in total percentage of students, not much is lost by banning the practice, schools like Harvard that want to produce a diverse student body will now be handcuffed. 

This brings me to another reason why I don’t think the court’s affirmative action decision matters for higher education. 

Last year, I helped administer a small scholarship as a member of my university’s Black faculty association. The association wanted to give a scholarship to two deserving Black students.

When our association initially wrote the requirements, they could not explicitly say they wanted to award the scholarship to a Black student (I suspect to avoid accusations of reverse discrimination). Yet  throughout the years we have had no concern that the recipient of that scholarship would not be Black. 


Along with grade-point average, the scholarship has two major requirements. 

First, the student had to have graduated from a particular selection of high schools in the area. These high schools have been primarily Black since the end of segregation. Our association is, in effect, leveraging white flight and white people’s desire to avoid under-resourced institutions serving a primarily Black population. 

A second requirement is that the student must submit an essay describing the work they had done for the Black community on or off campus. Our association is counting on the fact that white students are not going to be working in community centers or churches in the Black community – in essence leveraging segregation. 

It is theoretically possible that a white student could have been at those schools and could have been in a context where they were doing service in Black communities. But practically, it is unlikely. 

You don’t need affirmative action when you have racism to do the work for you.

I am not that concerned about the upcoming banning of affirmative action. The number of students who were admitted through an affirmative action process is relatively small compared to the total number of degree-seeking students. Moreover, universities can still find ways of producing a racially diverse campus – often by leveraging the legacy of racism. 

But this decision is symbolically important. 

Conservative white Americans may see this decision as justifying their sense of victimhood. Yes, the Students for Fair Admissions has brought these cases on behalf of Asian students, but let’s not be naive. The push to end affirmative action is coming from white conservatives. The ban becomes an authoritative statement in the affirmative that they have been discriminated against in a post-Civil Rights, “woke” world. 

We should brace ourselves as progressives for even more attempts to prevent our society from addressing racial inequality.  

Rod Graham is the Editorial Board's neighborhood sociologist. A professor at Virginia's Old Dominion University, he researches and teaches courses in the areas of cyber-crime and racial inequality. His work can be found at roderickgraham.com. Follow him @roderickgraham.

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