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In Defense of Affirmative Action

Affirmative action is under attack.

The most recent battle in the war against affirmative action is being brought by Students for Fair Admissions against Harvard University. According to its website, Students for Fair Admissions seeks to support and participate in legal challenges to eradicate race conscious admissions’ policies.

Indeed, Students for Fair Admission was behind prior cases against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Texas at Austin alleging racial discrimination based on illegal racial quotas. What is striking about the Harvard case is — unlike previous suits which involved White plaintiffs — this suit is being brought on behalf of its Asian American members who claim they were denied admission to Harvard due to their race. Will this be the battle that finally brings down affirmative action? With a newly reshaped Supreme Court, now may be as likely a time as any.

Amanda MainAmanda Main

The Harvard case is high profile because Harvard is a highly selective institution which receives tens of thousands more applicants than it will admit. However, what seems lost in the discussion is that there is more at stake than the handful of rejected applicants who make up the plaintiffs in this case, and even more at stake than the 37,000 applicants Harvard rejected in arriving at its 2021 class. A decision against affirmative action would affect millions of college students nationwide. This would cause a deleterious effect on campuses across the nation.

To argue for a “color blind” admissions policy, as Students for Fair Admissions does in the Harvard case, is naïve at best. Such a position ignores structural and actual acts of racism that continue in society. We are not post-racial. Neo-Nazis are marching and speaking on college campuses with often violent, and even deadly, effect.

White supremacists are trying to prevent Confederate statues, particularly on college campus communities, from being removed – statues that were put up during the Jim Crow era to serve as symbols of oppression and to continue to perpetuate discrimination and racial animus towards Black people. Moreover, it is no secret that racially marginalized persons continue to be underrepresented in higher education, government, law, business, executive positions, basically, just about every position of power in society. We have a moral obligation to ensure that racial minorities have equal access and opportunities for higher education and affirmative action is one tool that supports that goal.

Moreover, there is value in diversity in and of itself. The rich diversity of our life experiences, personal histories, cultures, language and thought are a valuable end in and of itself. And what better place for this to be valued and embraced than on a college campus? Colleges are often the first place where people will have an opportunity to experience people, thoughts and ideas different from their own. It prepares them for the world and the variety of people they will encounter in life. If the college campus is homogeneous, then that is far less likely to happen and we would be doing our students a disservice. Race, as a factor to be considered in a holistic admissions process, is essential to ensure we are providing this opportunity to students. It is a just cause worthy of defending.

Amanda Main is a lawyer and Ph.D. student at Bellarmine University.

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