By Jack Galloway
WASHINGTON– The Supreme Court agreed to hear a case about race-conscious admissions at two prestigious American Universities. As politicians consider what factors drove the recent recall of three San Francisco school board members, the contentious national conversation around affirmative action policies continues.
The Supreme Court agreed in Jan. to hear a case considering the legality of affirmative action admission policies at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. Many long-standing opponents of race-conscious admissions see an opportunity to finally eliminate race-based criteria in admission decisions.
President Kennedy first coined the term affirmative action in 1961 when he announced a government-wide plan to remedy past injustices in education and employment practices in the United States. As President Johnson later put it, the purpose of affirmative action was to achieve “equality as a fact and as a result.” Affirmative action has been controversial since its inception in the United States; a plethora of Supreme Court cases have struck down quota systems but have generally upheld the constitutionality of universities considering race as one of many factors in admissions. However, the replacement of the late Justice Ginsburg and moderate conservative Justice Kennedy with Justice Barrett and Justice Gorsuch has shifted the court to the right, casting doubts over whether the practice will be allowed to continue.
The Court is accepting the case during a time of national reckoning with fairness and equity in college admissions. Since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in March of 2020, colleges across the nation have suspended or completely dropped SAT/ACT testing requirements. Lawmakers and university administrators responsible for the decisions have often referenced the unfairness of standardized tests because wealthy families who can afford expensive test prep programs and costly retesting fees have an unfair advantage. As wealth in America skews white, many feel that standardized testing is a weapon of oppression that prevents racial minorities and low-income Americans from gaining access to a quality college education.
Race-based admissions have also played a role in Bay Area politics. On February 17th, voters in San Francisco recalled three school board members by a wide margin. The recall was propelled by the high turnout from Asian Americans who have expressed frustration over the adoption of a lottery system to accept applicants into Lowell High School, a prestigious public high school with a historically high Asian American enrollment. The lottery system that replaced the traditional merit-based system at Lowell was lauded by the now-recalled school board members as a mechanism to expand opportunities to historically marginalized communities, such as Hispanic and African Americans. The lottery system resulted in a twenty-five percent drop in Asian American enrollment at Lowell. Activists used the new admissions criteria as a rallying cry to encourage Asian Americans to go to the polls and vote for the recall.
A decision on the admissions policies of Harvard and the University of North Carolina will not take place until the summer of 2023. When the court renders its decision, it is likely the new Biden nominee will be sitting on the bench. No matter the decision from the Supreme Court, many Americans will be upset. Some see race-conscious admissions as an opportunity to remedy past injustices in public education while others view them in direct conflict with the American notion of equality.
Jack Galloway is a writer for The Vanguard’s Social Justice news desk. He is from Sacramento, California and is currently studying Environmental Economics and Policy at UC Berkeley.