Commentary: How Much Will the Affirmative Action Ruling Change Things?

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

When Prop. 209 passed in 1996 ending affirmative action in California, many were concerned that it would not only cut off a path to equity but cut off the ability of universities to be able to recruit students of color.

Nearly 30 years later, that has not happened.  If anything, the University of California, the competitive branch of California’s higher education system, is more diverse than it was in 1994, pre-Prop 209.

In 1994, UC was 37 precent Asian, 15 percent Latino, 36 percent White and 4 percent African American.  In Fall 2022, it was 32 percent Asian, 22.5 percent Latino, 22 percent white, and 4.5 percent African American.

The biggest change is that as recently as 2002, it was 1 percent international, now it’s 15 percent international.  But at the core, ending affirmative action did not help whites or Asians get into UC, and the diversity of the system continues to grow.

For all the consternation, that affirmative action harms Asians, the data just doesn’t support it.

From an analysis in the LA Times: “ In California, the ban on affirmative action at public universities imposed more than 25 years ago had little positive impact for Asian Americans. Asian American and white students may have been marginally more likely to get into their first choice of college versus their second choice after the ban, but overall access to the top tier of UC campuses was unchanged, as were economic outcomes. The ban, however, had major negative impacts on Black and Latino students’ enrollment at the most prestigious campuses, drove down their applications to the UC system overall and dramatically decreased earnings over time.”

The data from California suggests we might not even need affirmative action at this point.  Politically, affirmative action has always been a hard sell because it is too easy for people to argue that people should be admitted to college on their merits—and too difficult and complicated to point out that the way we determine merits is not only not based on objective science, it in and of itself bakes into racial prejudice (and more).

People who oppose affirmative action—even the court itself—often rely on flawed data and logic to support their claims.

The only saving grace here is that the court waited a long enough time to ban affirmative action that the impact is probably going to be far less than it might have been had it happened back in the 1970s when the court issued the ruling In re Bakke.

We have yet to level out the impact of historic and institutional racism by any means—but companies with bad track records for hiring and promoting women and people of color are much more likely to face scrutiny and criticism.

As the data show from California, universities that prioritize and value diversity will find ways to make it happen.

That’s not to say that I think this is the right ruling.  Far from it.

The biggest problem is that it exposes hypocrisy, both of the court and in colleges and universities themselves.

For example, the NY Times reported, “It’s been called affirmative action for the rich: Harvard’s special admissions treatment for students whose parents are alumni, or whose relatives donated money. And in a complaint filed on Monday, a legal activist group demanded that the federal government put an end to it, arguing that fairness was even more imperative after the Supreme Court last week severely limited race-conscious admissions.”

A big part of my problem with complaints about affirmative action is that we act as though the admissions criteria that we have had based on things like GPA and SATs is somehow objective and evidence-based.

In 2022, California eliminated SAT and ACT tests from the undergraduate admissions processes.

“The decision by the Board of Trustees aligns with the California State University’s mission of access and our efforts to provide high-quality college degrees for students of all backgrounds,” says April Grommo, Ed.D., assistant vice chancellor for Enrollment Management Services. “We are eliminating a high-stakes test that can cause great stress on students and their families and does not add any additional predictive value over high school GPA. The CSU being test-free will better meet the needs of our future students.”

More than 1,800 campuses—nearly 80% of all four-year colleges and universities— have now dropped standardized testing requirements for admissions.

The LA Times reported last year, “Research around disparate outcomes of test results based on socioeconomic backgrounds and CSU’s goals to increase graduation rates by 2025 were taken into account. A 2019 study that found high school GPA was a stronger predictor than the SAT of first-year grades and second-year retention for Cal State students.”

Meanwhile, critics point out that the court has been inconsistent on racial issues.

For instance, Justice Sonia Sotomayor in her dissent pointed out, “The result of today’s decision is that a person’s skin color may play a role in assessing individualized suspicion, but it cannot play a role in assessing that person’s individualized contributions to a diverse learning environment.”

She continued, “That indefensible reading of the Constitution is not grounded in law and subverts the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection.”

This is the fundamental problem we continue to face.  While we have clearly come a long way as a society we have not gone nearly far enough to remove institutionalized racism, and those who argue that the solution to racism is color blindness forget something fundamental—if you don’t see race, you may well be continuing to look past injustice.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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35 Comments

  1. Keith Olsen

    those who argue that the solution to racism is color blindness forget something fundamental—if you don’t see race, you may well be continuing to look past injustice.

    So MLK was wrong?

    David, I know you will now find some cherrypicked article to back your statement as you always do.  What you said here is not unique, I’ve already done the “Google” search.

    1. David Greenwald

      MLK supported affirmative action:

      “It is, however, important to understand that giving a man his due may often mean giving him special treatment. I am aware of the fact that this has been a troublesome concept for many liberals, since it conflicts with their traditional ideal of equal opportunity and equal treatment of people according to their individual merits. But this is a day which demands new thinking and the reevaluation of old concepts. A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for him, in order to equip him to compete on a just and equal basis.”

  2. Ron Oertel

    For all the consternation, that affirmative action harms Asians, the data just doesn’t support it.

    Affirmative action is illegal, so the data indeed does not show the impact.

    In Fall 2022, it was 32 percent Asian, 22.5 percent Latino, 22 percent white, and 4.5 percent African American.

    None of these figures aligns with the percentage of population, and is also an over-representation of Asians in the system.  

    And if one includes International students, it would likely skew the results toward an even-higher percentage of Asians.

    But I do wonder about the accuracy of such data in the first place, since it’s presumably/voluntarily provided by applicants themselves.

    If Affirmative Action was implemented, it would lead to some Asians in particular “losing out” on admission.

    Ask any parent if they’re o.k. with their kid “losing out” on admission (or a job) due to their kid’s skin color. Their answer would tell you all that you need to know. And that would be the DIRECT RESULT of Affirmative Action

    Within the past couple of years or so, California voters (again) rejected Affirmative Action.

     

    1. David Greenwald

      “Affirmative action is illegal, so the data indeed does not show the impact.”

      You are still not understanding this point. We had 20 to 30 years of Affirmative Action in California which resulted in the data we had from 1994. We have nearly 30 years since the end of Affirmative Action. If Affirmative Action were skewing the stats, we would have expected to see a lot of movement over that time, and we haven’t.

      1. Ron Oertel

        You are still not understanding this point. We had 20 to 30 years of Affirmative Action in California which resulted in the data we had from 1994.

        I saw it, but there are no details regarding “how” Affirmative Action was actually implemented prior to its ban.  Sounds like it wasn’t “effectively” implemented, at that time.

        Asians were over-represented prior to the ban, and are still over-represented after the ban.

        And again, how accurate are those self-reported, voluntarily-submitted statistics in the first place?

        In addition, the article you cited states this:

        The ban, however, had major negative impacts on Black and Latino students’ enrollment at the most prestigious campuses, drove down their applications to the UC system overall and dramatically decreased earnings over time.”

        Sounds to me like there were some “black and Latino” students who weren’t admitted when the ban was enacted, and that those spots went to “someone else”.  (“Who” did they go to?)

        This is ultimately a zero-sum game in a competitive system – whether it’s admission to a university, a job, etc.

        If a competitive system selects based upon skin color, some will “lose” based upon their skin color.  This isn’t complicated, regardless of how some attempt to twist it.

         

         

        1. David Greenwald

          “I saw it, but there are no details regarding “how” Affirmative Action was actually implemented prior to its ban. ”

          That’s the craziest thing you’ve ever said – which is saying something.

    2. David Greenwald

      “Ask any parent if they’re o.k. with their kid “losing out” on admission (or a job) due to their kid’s skin color.”

      So ask them a loaded, biased and largely false question? That’s your test?

      1. Keith Olsen

        So ask them a loaded, biased and largely false question? That’s your test?

        That’s not a false or biased question.  It happened to my daughter who tried to get into Cal.  I’m sure many people have experienced this at sometime in their lives.

        1. Ron Glick

          Cal is one of the most prestigious universities in the country and is often ranked number one among public universities. Many are called but few are chosen.

          By the way 24 kids from Davis were accepted to Cal from the 2023 graduating class.

        2. Hiram Jackson

          If getting a UC diploma is really important, statistically it is easier to get into a UC school as a transfer student. And there is nothing on a UC diploma that says you got in that way; no one has to know if you don’t want to reveal that fact.

          Ron Glick: ‘By the way 24 kids from Davis were accepted to Cal from the 2023 graduating class.’

          That’s from Davis HS alone. I believe there were some from Da Vinci.

        3. Richard McCann

          Given that Cal hasn’t been allowed to use affirmative action for over a quarter century, her rejection could not have been on the basis of race. So it couldn’t have happened. So you didn’t experience (nor have any other California families aiming for students to get into a UC.)

        4. Keith Olsen

          Given that Cal hasn’t been allowed to use affirmative action for over a quarter century, her rejection could not have been on the basis of race. So it couldn’t have happened.

          There you go jumping to conclusions again.  You don’t know what she experienced.

          1. David Greenwald

            You’re basically asking us to take your representation on faith, contrary to the law, without providing us with any details. I don’t think that’s really a fair ask on your part.

        5. Walter Shwe

          There you go jumping to conclusions again.  You don’t know what she experienced.

          In this instance neither she nor you really know why she was rejected. There are thousands of other universities she can apply to. Tens or hundreds of thousands of applicants get rejected for all kinds of reasons. No one outside of admissions departments really know the applicants she was competing against. It’s obvious that in some cases the differences between candidates are tiny and could come down to nitpicking. There are plenty of people that graduate from less prestigious institutions that wind up being successful and the opposite is also true.

  3. Ron Oertel

    “I saw it, but there are no details regarding “how” Affirmative Action was actually implemented prior to its ban. ”
    That’s the craziest thing you’ve ever said – which is saying something.

    Am I missing something from the article, above?

    Also, there has been “unofficial” Affirmative Action since the ban was implemented.

    Again, the way that Affirmative Action works (in a competitive system) is to “approve” or “deny” admission at least partly based upon skin color (in this case, self-reported skin color I assume).  The same thing applies to “diversity hires”.

    This isn’t even in question – it’s literally how it works.  Some applicants will win or lose based upon their immutable physical characteristics. 

    It’s literally legalized discrimination, based upon skin color. Is it any wonder that the Supreme Court found it to be unconstitutional?

    I’m surprised that it took THIS long for them to do so.

    For that matter, I’m surprised that someone doesn’t sue politicians who publicly state that they’re going to appoint only those who have the correct skin color and/or sex, for a given position.

    Perhaps that will be challenged, as well.

    1. David Greenwald

      First of all, there are plenty of details about how Affirmative Action was actually implemented prior to the ban. I didn’t go into those details as I don’t think it’s that important, but it’s pretty similar to what you saw at Harvard.

      Second, the notion that there is an unoffocial Affirmative Action is not going to go away. even Roberts wrote that “nothing prohibits universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life…” This was the difficulty that originally led to Affirmative Action in the first place, because only looking at summary data rather than individual level decisions can you see the effect of the policy.

      At the end of the day, universities are no longer looking for reasons to exclude people of color and women, they are looking at ways to include them. As long as that is the case, you can only do so much.

      “I’m surprised that someone doesn’t sue politicians…”

      Most elected officials have absolute immunity from civil suit.

      1. Ron Oertel

        First of all, there are plenty of details about how Affirmative Action was actually implemented prior to the ban. I didn’t go into those details as I don’t think it’s that important, but it’s pretty similar to what you saw at Harvard.

        You think the “details” aren’t important, when citing statistics which conflict with the reality of the way that Affirmative Action works.

        Second, the notion that there is an unoffocial Affirmative Action is not going to go away.

        And your point is . . .?

        And how does THAT relate to the statistics that you cite, as well?

        At the end of the day, the way that Affirmative Action works is to “approve” or “deny” someone admission based at least partly upon their skin color.  And there’s no way to deny that fact.

        Same thing applies regarding “diversity hires”.

        There are ways to encourage enrollment of under-represented groups which won’t break the law.
        ;

        1. David Greenwald

          “At the end of the day, the way that Affirmative Action works is to “approve” or “deny” someone admission based at least partly upon their skin color. And there’s no way to deny that fact.”

          That’s a little more accurate than your first statement. But it ignores several factors that I think are very important in this discussion – which I addressed in my piece.

        2. Ron Oertel

          That’s a little more accurate than your first statement. But it ignores several factors that I think are very important in this discussion – which I addressed in my piece.

          It’s not a “little” more accurate.  It’s completely accurate, as was my first comment.

          The “factors” you discuss are irrelevant, regarding this basic fact.

          This basic fact is also the reason that Affirmative Action has been rejected in California (twice, at this point).

          And yes, Affirmative Action (whether it’s “official”, or “unofficial”) will result in some being denied admission based upon their skin color. And for the most part, parents and their kids may not even “know” that this was the reason. This is not a way to encourage trust in the system.

          Same thing applies regarding “diversity hires”, or politicians publicly stating that their choice will be limited to those of particular skin colors or sex.

          It does seem as though leaders at many universities repeatedly attempt to apply their own “beliefs”, regardless. Including at public universities.

          1. David Greenwald

            Really? Traditionally admissions have been based on numbers of factors including the so-called hard measures like grades and standardized test scores. And then a bunch of “softer” measures. The problem with all of the traditional hard and soft measures is that they are systematically biased away from people of color. The idea behind affirmative action was to create a way to correct for that bias.

            So you are arguing that by correcting for it, it makes for a consideration “based at least partly upon their skin color” whereas I would argue that the traditional measures actually do this and affirmative action is an attempt to neutralize that.

            Hence my argument that your statement is more accurate but not completely accurate.

        3. Ron Oertel

          Really? Traditionally admissions have been based on numbers of factors including the so-called hard measures like grades and standardized test scores. And then a bunch of “softer” measures. The problem with all of the traditional hard and soft measures is that they are systematically biased away from people of color.

          You’re now citing factors which (even if true) are not “unchangeable” – unlike skin color. 

          But for that matter, there is some controversy regarding the selective factors that you’re now referring to (e.g., some claim that they merely reflect “merit” or “preparedness” to handle academic subjects). 

          I’m not getting into those arguments, here.

          The idea behind affirmative action was to create a way to correct for that bias.

          That is indeed the claim – which apparently leads some to believe that skin color should be used as a selective factor, instead.

          So you are arguing that by correcting for it, it makes for a consideration “based at least partly upon their skin color” whereas I would argue that the traditional measures actually do this and affirmative action is an attempt to neutralize that.

          Again, factors other than skin color can be changed.  Skin color cannot be.

          Hence my argument that your statement is more accurate but not completely accurate.

          Again, I was noting how Affirmative Action works, and its result.  It was completely accurate.

           

           

          1. David Greenwald

            Now you’ve gone down the rabbit hole, so I’m going to stop. If you can’t acknowledge that traditional measures are biased and affirmative action is an (imperfect) mechanism to correct that traditional bias, then there is no point to continuing this.

        4. Ron Oertel

          Now you’ve gone down the rabbit hole, so I’m going to stop. If you can’t acknowledge that traditional measures are biased and affirmative action is an (imperfect) mechanism to correct that traditional bias, then there is no point to continuing this.

          Do you even read what you write, or what you claim that I said?

          You’re the one who took this down the “rabbit hole” (regarding issues other than Affirmative Action).  In my response, I didn’t even make any statement regarding whether or not “I” believe that selective factors (other than Affirmative Action) are biased. And yet, you claim that I did.

          But now that you brought it up, I can’t help but think of what George Carlin said about “education” (and weakening of selective factors in the public school system), years ago. That is, “pretty soon all you’ll need to get into college is a pencil”.

          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sNXHSMmaq_s

           

           

        5. Ron Oertel

          So you are arguing that by correcting for it, it makes for a consideration “based at least partly upon their skin color” whereas I would argue that the traditional measures actually do this and affirmative action is an attempt to neutralize that.

          There are examples of “all” different skin colors qualifying under what you refer to as “traditional measures”. The opposite is not true, regarding Affirmative Action, since one “has to be” a particular skin color to “qualify”.

          This is the fundamental difference.

          This is literally not the case, under Affirmative Action.  It is (or was) legalized discrimination, based upon skin color.  (Again, traditional measures do not examine skin color.)

          Hence my argument that your statement is more accurate but not completely accurate.

          Not seeing anything “inaccurate” in my statement(s).

          What you’re attempting to do is to examine “results”, and then backtracking to a system which literally bans consideration of skin color as a factor – regardless of disproportionate outcomes.

          This is not unlike claims related to disproportionate incarceration between different groups, which you would call “systemic racism”.  While others might simply point to differences in crime rates between different groups, as the “cause”.

           

  4. Ron Glick

    I remember one night I was hanging out with these pilots who were trained in the military. One of these guys was complaining that his daughter couldn’t get into Harvard because she was white. She was attending Community College in Rockland CA. Plenty of white people get into Harvard so you need to wonder the cause of that level of white grevince. The notion that a kid couldn’t  get into Harvard because of Affirmative Action and chose  Sierra  College as a second choice is so weird I could only shake my head.

    I once wrote a letter for a fabulous student who went to M.I.T. I asked her what  default school  she was applying to in case she didn’t get into any of the top tier schools she was applying to? I figured she would apply to a UC campus or some second tier school. Without hesitation she replied “Johns Hopkins.”

    1. Ron Oertel

      Plenty of white people get into Harvard so you need to wonder the cause of that level of white grevince.

      What difference would it make if “plenty of white people” are accepted to a university (or obtain a job) if “your” kid does not – due to the color of his/her skin?

      And would you say the same thing regarding “plenty of Asians” . . .? Would you then label their reaction as “Asian grievance”?

      As far as “plenty” (your word) is concerned, Asians are the “group” that are primarily over-represented at universities. But actually, it’s incorrect to group all Asians together in the first place, as if they were a singular group. (And yet, that’s how they’re apparently categorized by the system.)

      1. Ron Glick

        Since you fail to grasp what I was saying let me spell it out for you. If you think your kid is going to Sierra College because she couldn’t get into Harvard because of racial preferences you are expressing a level of resentment that is pretty removed from reality. Kids that qualify for Harvard, but, are excluded for whatever reason, usually have much better options than Sierra College.

        I do have friends who got two kids into Harvard. Of course they wanted to go there because both parents went there too.

        1. Ron Oertel

          I understand your point, and debated whether or not to directly respond to it.

          My comment was more “general” than the specific example you cited.

          Hiram brought up an important point above, regarding attending community college for the first couple of years.  Doing so would solve a lot of “problems”, including those related to housing.

          On a broader level, very few “humans” are “o.k.” with losing out on opportunities (of any type) due to their skin color. 

          And by definition, that’s the direct result of Affirmative Action in a competitive system, for those who don’t have a preferred skin color.

          This is not simply an “opinion” – there’s no way to deny this fact. This is how it actually works.

  5. Ron Glick

    Is it better to lose out to connected kids? The problem that the Supremes fail to address is that Harvard had to discriminate in order to maintain a system that favors the rich and connected. In doing so they pit the rest of society against one another over the leftover crumbs from the golden ticket. So now the rich and connected still get in, not on merit but on privilege instead, while everyone else is distracted by racial animus.

    Its class warfare. The rich against everyone else, where everyone else is pissed off over racial preferences, divided and conquered, while the ruling class perpetuates itself and keeps everyone else resentful of each other. I think that is what you are missing.

  6. Richard McCann

    I’ve never liked affirmative action because it is such a coarse tool for achieving our real societal goals. We now have the tools to do a much better job. Universities should define their visions and missions in terms of what they are delivering to society (and that can’t be “leave it to the invisible hand”.) Most likely this can be defined as how many graduates end up in the communities that need their talents and services. Universities now have the data on their alumni that tells them where they have landed in their careers. The admissions offices can then run quantitative analysis on the characteristics of those alumni and weight the admissions factors by those characteristics that will give the preferred mix of graduates to meet the university’s mission. This measure the true merit of an applicant–what about them best meets our overall goals.

    I wrote more here: https://mcubedecon.com/2018/09/01/fixing-college-admissions/

  7. Richard McCann

    Universities should define their mission in the context what they are providing to society, and then select among applicants to best achieve that mission. They now have the data to do this in a way that truly measures merit, not just on academic achievement. I write more about this approach here: https://mcubedecon.com/2018/09/01/fixing-college-admissions/

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