The end of affirmative action will also hurt white students

The students admitted to US universities under the new, ‘race neutral’ regime won’t be receiving the ‘stellar’ education they hoped for.

Demonstrators protest outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, Thursday, June 29, 2023, after the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions, saying race cannot be a factor. Days after the Supreme Court outlawed affirmative action in college admissions, activists say they will sue Harvard over its use of legacy preferences for children of alumni.
The Supreme Court's June decision to ban affirmative action came in response to lawsuits that challenged the policies of Harvard University and the University of North Carolina (UNC) by claiming race-conscious student admissions programmes discriminate against white and Asian American applicants [File: Jose Luis Magana/AP Photo]

The recent Supreme Court decision to ban the consideration of race in college admissions is poised to have a significant impact on school access and student body composition, in both direct and indirect ways.

The expectation, based on states that have already banned affirmative action, is that Black, Hispanic and Indigenous enrolment will decline, perhaps precipitously, under the new rules.

Even though we are months away from the first set of college admissions that will come after the ruling, the impact of the decision is already being felt in less direct but similarly impactful ways.

In Missouri and Kentucky, government and school officials are interpreting the decision as banning not only race-based admissions policies but also scholarships reserved for minority students. This means that some of the minority students admitted under the new regime might not be able to afford to go to the schools of their choice.

While the costs to underrepresented minority populations are already being realised, the benefits to Asian American applicants, who were found to have been disadvantaged by the now-discontinued affirmative action policies, are far from clear.

While the general expectation is that Asian American applicants will see a bump in acceptance rates at top schools, some studies suggest that Asian American admissions rates may not move, or could even decline, under race-blind admissions policies.

With a clear cost to Black, Latino and Indigenous admissions and an uncertain impact on Asian American acceptance rates, it’s tempting to argue cynically that only white students will benefit from the end of affirmative action in the United States.

In reality, however, the situation is even bleaker. Even though white applicants will likely see greater acceptance rates under the new admissions regime, overall they too will be hurt by the end of affirmative action, a programme which – unbeknown to many – has actually been implemented primarily to benefit white students.

The benefits of affirmative action for white students have manifested in two ways. First, the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action have been white women. Underrepresented in colleges in 1960, women’s enrolment matched men’s in the 1980s, partially as a result of sex-based affirmative action policies. Today, white women significantly outpace white men in college enrolment.

The Supreme Court’s ruling only bans race-based affirmative action. Although white women have numerically benefitted more from affirmative action than racial minorities, sex-based admissions criteria were not questioned in the lawsuits decided by the court.

In general, racial policies are judged by the courts according to “strict scrutiny,” the most stringent set of standards that the courts apply. Policies that differentiate by sex, by contrast, are evaluated by a lower standard; in other words, it is easier to gain judicial approval for a gender-based policy than it is to get approval for a race-based policy.

That said, the arguments that the Supreme Court leaned on when they ruled against race-conscious admissions policies could logically be applied to sex-based policies as well. Women are overrepresented in higher education. Could this not be used to demonstrate that men are no longer the beneficiaries of a biased admissions process?

Actually, by the court’s current logic, men could argue that they are being discriminated against as well. Already, right-wing actors like Trump adviser Stephen Miller appear to be seeking clients to sue corporations and universities for their diversity, equity and inclusion policies, alleging that these institutions “are illegally discriminating against Americans based on race and sex”.

Should such a case materialise and gain traction, it is not inconceivable that this Supreme Court – which has already overturned the “settled law” of Roe v Wade – might decide that women need no special consideration when it comes to college admissions. If affirmative action is rolled back for women as well, white women would have the most to lose.

This concern, for now at least, is theoretical. But the current decision will harm white students – men and women – in a more immediate way, because the affirmative action regime that has just been dismantled was actually crafted with white students in mind.

Most people think of affirmative action policies as attempts to undo racial injustices and biases. This was, after all, the primary goal when presidents Kennedy and Johnson launched the first affirmative action policies for federal contractors.

For decades, affirmative action was governed by the 1978 decision of a case in which Allan Bakke, a prospective medical school student, sued the University of California (UC), which had set aside a certain number of medical school slots for underrepresented minority applicants. The Bakke case famously outlawed the use of such “quota” systems while allowing a less formulaic, more holistic use of race as a factor in admissions.

What people often fail to remember is that the Bakke case set not only the rules of how affirmative action could be implemented in universities, but also the acceptable justification for such policies.

UC presented four justifications for its use of race in medical school admissions; three of those were rejected by the court.

The justices ruled that it was not acceptable to use race to “[reduce] the historic deficit of traditionally disfavored minorities in medical schools and in the medical profession”. Further, they rejected the argument for affirmative action as a tool for countering the effects of societal discrimination. The court also ruled out the practical justification of using affirmative action in med school admissions for the purpose of “increasing the number of physicians who will practice in communities currently underserved”. In short, since 1978, affirmative action has not been a tool for any form of social justice.

The fourth argument put forth by UC, which the court until this year found acceptable, was the use of race-based affirmative action policies for “obtaining the educational benefits that flow from an ethnically diverse student body”.

This was an argument that affirmative action benefitted the entire student body, not only the members of marginalised groups who might not otherwise be admitted.

In other words, race-based affirmative action – the policy that has been demonised as a far-left social justice intervention into education for decades – has existed for the past 45 years only because the Supreme Court adopted an “all lives matter” approach to educational disparities.

And since higher education has remained majority white even under the decades of affirmative action policies, white people have numerically been the largest group to reap these diversity benefits.

The 2023 Supreme Court did not directly deny the benefits of a diverse student body. It simply argued that these benefits were difficult to measure or quantify.

Recent research, however, has attempted to do just that. One recent study of law school review articles, for instance, used the frequency of citations – a standard metric for impact and quality – to demonstrate that articles produced under programmes that focus on increasing diversity are more impactful than those produced without such diversity initiatives.

Beyond such direct academic outcomes, the additional benefits of student body diversity largely manifest in terms of extracurricular character building, attitude formation and expansion of personal perspectives and world views. For example, research has suggested that “living in a racially diverse environment with a high multiracial population” decreased racial essentialism in white people, helping them reduce or shed stereotypes and feelings of racial superiority.

The Supreme Court, however, maintains the position that a decrease in racial bias, even if measurable, is not a worthwhile justification for continuing affirmative action.

In doing so, the court has chosen an overly optimistic, or wilfully ignorant, view of racial progress in America, something that Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson called out in her dissent as she compared her conservative colleagues with ostriches burying their heads in the ground concerning issues of race.

The court also adopted an overly narrow view of the purpose of higher education, a view that conservatives have used to dismiss equity and racial justice concerns in education and other areas of life, such as voting rights.

One critic of affirmative action wrote last year that “it would be quite possible for students to get a sterling education at a university where every student was a white person from Colorado.” There are good reasons to doubt this is true, even for strictly academic outcomes. But even if a drop in diversity under the post-affirmative action regime does not impact grades or publications for students at top universities, the “sterling education” that students will be receiving will become more narrow in scope.

The learning that comes outside of the classroom and that results in expanded world views, tolerance and understanding will suffer as student bodies become less reflective of our larger society. Sadly, many of the students admitted under the new, “race neutral” regime will not even be aware of what they’re missing.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.