Commentary: The Fallacy of Race Neutrality in Affirmative Action’s Dialectic

Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to the affirmative action policy at the University of Texas. In assessing students not in the top 10 percent of their high school graduating class, who are guaranteed admission, UT uses a “holistic” application review process with many factors, one of which is race “to achieve the educational needs of a diverse student body,” said UT President Bill Powers.

Most of the opponents of UT’s affirmative action policy, in hailing the court’s decision to hear the case, have declared they oppose affirmative action due to their support for racial equality. 

“The only way to usher in true racial equality in America is to end race-based discrimination,” asserted Stephen Balch, chairman of the National Association of Scholars (NAS), an organization that signed a friend-of-the-court brief for the case. “There are many race-neutral ways of promoting equal opportunity on our college campuses, and we urged the court to choose these instead.”

NAS joined the Center for Equal Opportunity (CEO), the American Civil Rights Institute (ACRI), and Project 21 in signing the brief produced by the Pacific Legal Foundation. In addition to positing that UT’s admissions policy violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the brief argues that the existing policies ominously allow “government to adopt race-conscious measures without giving serious, good faith consideration to less restrict race-neutral policies.”

In reviewing the language used in this case and really the whole argument over affirmative action over the last decade, there has emerged a false dialectic, pivoting at the axis of the conflict. Supporters have defended the 2003 high court ruling, Grutter v. Bollinger, which allowed narrowly focused “race-conscious” admissions methods to achieve racial diversity. Meanwhile, opponents, like the NAS, have called for “race-neutral” methods to replace “race-conscious” methods, which they consider unconstitutional “racial preferences” in admissions.

The false dialect: race-consciousness verses race neutrality. In the United States, there is no such thing as race neutrality, just like there is no such thing as color blindness and post-racialism. There is no such thing as a race-neutral admissions policy. Race neutrality, particularly in the college admissions process, is a fallacy. It does not exist. It has never existed in higher education.

All of the seemingly traditional “race-neutral” admissions considerations are in fact race-conscious.

In its 2011 State of College Admission Report, the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that grades in college preparatory courses are the number-one factor considered in the admissions decision. This factor was deemed more important than test scores, overall GPA or class rank. 

According to the recently released AP Report to the Nation by the College Board, 79.7 percent of Black students who could have done well in an AP course did not take one because they were either left out, or their schools did not offer college prep courses. That is almost 20 percentage points higher (61.6) than White students.

Responding to this, Bryan Cook, director of the American Council on Education’s Center for Policy Analysis, said, “if [Black students are] not given the opportunity because the courses are not available, it obviously puts them a step behind other students who attend schools where the courses are offered.”

Putting this together, how is the chief consideration in college admissions—performance in college prep courses—“race neutral” when Black students are significantly less likely to even have the ability to take the courses, let alone perform well? The only way this factor would be race neutral is if students of all races had the same opportunities to take and perform well in college prep courses. 

Furthermore, taking college prep courses gives students the ability to boost their profile in the other main factors—test scores, overall GPA, and GPA’s resultant class rank, among a series of others.

I remember when I took my International Baccalaureate (IB) prep courses at my majority White high school in Northern Virginia (after not having that ability at my majority Black and Latino high school in Queens). I received four points toward my GPA for a B, five for an A, which is standard for IB and AP courses. Thus, students who have convenient access to college prep courses in their schools have the unjust opportunity to achieve higher GPAs than students who do not have access to those courses. This access, or rather lack thereof, is substantially correlated to race. So how is GPA “race neutral” when the GPA ladder is usually better constructed for White students and the GPA ceiling for them is more likely to be higher?

Studies have consistently shown SAT scores correlate with family income. And there is an substantial income gap, as we all know, between Black and White families, which one study suggests has in fact grown since the 1960s. So how are SAT scores “race neutral” when studies consistently show that scores are most likely to determine the level of the test taker’s family income, a level bound by race?

Why do Whites perform better in college prep courses? Why do they tend to have higher GPAs when applying for colleges? Why do they score better on the SAT?

There can be only two explanations, both of which lead back to racism. There is and has always been an unequal playing field. Or, there is an equal playing field and White students are consistently outperforming inferior Black students in the classroom. Data of K-12 schools consistently show the latter is blatantly false—a falsity that is common knowledge. 

Still, though, this latest affirmative action case has diverged around reality and cohered around the fallacy of race neutrality in the admissions process. 

The major considerations in the admissions process generally benefit White students: performance in college prep courses, GPA, and SAT scores, among a slew of others. The one minor consideration that does not benefit White students is affirmative action—advocates are clamoring for its elimination in the name of racial parity. The irony is appalling. But welcome to the ruthless state of racism in America.

Dr. Ibram H. Rogers is an assistant professor of history at SUNY College at Oneonta. He is the author of The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972 (2012).