Credit: Shutterstock

Listen to this article:

This past June, the United States Supreme Court struck down a legal precedent allowing universities and colleges in America to consider race in determining who gets into higher education. Now deemed unconstitutional, colleges and universities can no longer rely on this policy to diversify their campuses. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion for the case and argued that these race-conscious policies violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Though the impacts have yet to unfold, researchers have argued maintaining levels of representation for underrepresented racial or ethnic groups would require the entire admissions system to change.  

Race-conscious admissions in America emerged in the early 1960s from Northern college administrators who drew inspiration from civil rights protests in the South. It was similarly an attempt to rectify the longstanding history of systemic racism in the United States. A prominent example of this was the legacy of Jim Crow Laws during the late 1870-90s — which legalized the racial segregation of African Americans in Southern states. These laws were in effect for nearly 100 years and systematically marginalized African Americans by stripping away their right to vote, hold jobs or attend higher education. What brought an end to this legislative history was the Civil Rights Movement from around 1954 to 1968 which sought to end acts of racial discrimination against African Americans and restore “universal suffrage in the Southern states.” 

Despite this history, public reception of race-conscious admissions hasn’t always been positive. In America, recent polling shows a strong divide in public opinion on race-based college admissions. Even before this recent decision, among the 50 states in the U.S., nine have banned it. The argument mainly brought by Asian American applicants, however, is that institutions such as Harvard have discriminatory admissions policies. 

These debates unfolding across America trace back to affirmative action — a public policy designed to promote equality of opportunity and prevent discrimination against identity factors such as race, sex, gender, religion, national origin and disability. In 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke that race could be a factor in determining an applicant for admission. However, it similarly declared unjust the practice of implementing racial quotas, observed with one medical school that set aside 16% of seats for minority students. Today, affirmative action in the form of race-conscious admissions allowed hundreds of colleges and universities to consider a student’s racial background in addition to standard measures such as test scores, grades or extracurricular activities.

The Social Implications for Asian-American Students

Scholars have noted that considering race can be a holistic admissions strategy, which pushes admissions officers to challenge implicit biases and view students as multidimensional people. The reasoning behind this is, though not every case, that white, middle to upper-class families tend to have an easier time accessing private schools, special tutoring services, testing resources, and college counseling to improve their “chances of admission.” On the flip side, a 2020 study revealed that banning race-conscious admissions at UCLA and UC Berkeley decreased the number of Black first-year students by 43% and 66%. 

Within the Asian American diaspora, the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard case investigated whether Harvard University discriminated against Asian American applicants. The plaintiffs argued that race-based college admissions are detrimental to Asian Americans. The claim was that Asian Americans have stronger overall academic performances yet, are rejected — to maintain a so-called “racial balancing” that involves capping the number of Asian American students to admit “less qualified” white, Black and Latinx applicants. 

One explanation is that Asian-American students score higher than other demographics on admissions criteria, such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). Yet, scholars have noted that Asians have served as a “mask for white privilege.” The model minority myth suggests that Asian Americans successfully embody what minority groups have the power to become in North America. Coined by sociologist William Petersen, the model minority myth posits East, Southeast Asian and South Asians in North America are inherently “advantageous, intelligent and hardworking compared to other minority groups.” This idea has helped create the narrative that Asian American students are “polite, law-abiding [citizens]” who have successfully climbed the social ladder by adhering to Western values such as the American Dream. 

However, it is harmful to categorize the Asian American community under one umbrella since many Asian Americans have diverse lived experiences. For example, research has demonstrated that Filipino, Thai, Native Hawaiian and Laotian have lower admittance rates, unlike Japanese or Korean Americans (50% had bachelor’s degrees). Another 2016 Post-Election National Asian American Survey revealed that “57% of Cambodian Americans and 53% of Hmong Americans reported problems with the quality of their children’s schools.” Other communities, such as Southeast Asian Americans, report experiencing poverty at rates higher than the national average. The successes of the Asian American community are often on a pedestal for other minorities. This narrative induces a problematic comparison because it suggests that through working harder or moving on from history, other minority groups can succeed. 

Even within the same racial or ethnic community, it is crucial to recognize that the experiences of Asian Americans are not the same. The Pew Research Centre conducted a study to understand the viewpoints of Asian Americans towards affirmative action, and the results show mixed views. While nearly half support it, 75% of Asian adults have stated higher education should not use race as a factor in college admissions decisions. These findings can create a snapshot of the Asian-American college admissions experience, but the whole truth should account for factors such as generational differences, gender, and geography. 

Alternative Pathways to Higher Education

What have been the other discourses regarding this case? One viewpoint turns to the elitist nature of college and university admissions and inherent favor towards money or status. Examining the existing admissions practices used by Ivy League institutions, the National Bureau of Economic Research revealed that athletes, children of alum (also known as legacy students), children of faculty and staff, or those who donate to the institution are more likely to get admitted. 43% of the people leveraging these channels were white — contrasted to African American, Asian American and Hispanic students (16%). As noted by Elie Mystal, an African American Harvard law graduate:

“You’ll note that the Supreme Court did not ban gender consciousness in college admissions. Nor did it ban legacy consciousness, wealth consciousness, geographic consciousness, or athletic consciousness.” 

At the core of these debates is the issue of identity and how transparent universities & colleges are with their admissions process. Indeed, the 2019 college admissions scandal demonstrated the positional advantage children from affluent families get in the admissions process. For over a decade, Rick Singer acted as an admissions consultant for wealthy families; he bribed exam proctors to increase students’ test scores and paid coaches off to recruit students as athletes — guaranteeing their admission. 

This recent court decision renders the future of race-based college admissions uncertain. There is no shortage of debate as to whether affirmative action is beneficial — but the end of race-based college admissions will undoubtedly change the education landscape in North America. With one less public policy in place to support the educational outcomes for Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC), scholars could direct their attention to the makeup of college and university campuses in the future. If BIPOC attendance rates were to decrease in the future, would this challenge the judicial system’s attitude toward affirmative action

Edited by Chelsea Bean

Jacob Sablan

Jacob (he/him) is a second-year at the University of British Columbia studying Political Science and Law & Society. He was born in Edmonton, Alberta, but his family is from Bamban, Tarlac in the Philippines....