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Fifty-eight years ago this week, “Brown v. Board of Education” was first argued before the Supreme Court. When a decision ending racial segregation was handed down almost a year and a half later, it marked perhaps the Court’s greatest triumph of the twentieth century; its assertion of the constitutional rights of black students marked a concrete step toward the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equality before the laws. But in the years since Brown, interpreting the substance of this equality has complicated the case’s legacy. Recognizing Brown’s relevance for current debates about affirmative action in college admissions helps to clarify these debates and identifies class-based (rather than race-based) affirmative action as the best means of resolving them.
Recently, race-based affirmative action has reemerged in the news as a result of Fisher v. Texas, a case in which two students sued the University of Texas at Austin for using race as a factor in determining admissions. The case marked the first challenge to the Supreme Court’s 2003 ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger, which held that schools could use race as an element in admissions decisions as long as their goal was to increase classroom diversity and not to correct for past discrimination.
The Supreme Court was right to rule out affirmative action based on prior discrimination; past prejudices don’t justify present injustices. Previously, certain racial groups were undoubtedly denied admission to the nation’s top universities solely on the basis of their race. However, affirmative action programs aimed at correcting for past injustices do the same thing—only the race of the rejected students has changed. Admissions officers often reject this accusation by claiming that race is only one factor used in a holistic approach; therefore, no one is accepted or rejected simply on the basis of one feature. This, however, is a fallacy: If two students are equally qualified but differ only in terms of their race, the college may reject one and accept the other, since race is one of the factors used to distinguish them. The use of holistic admissions guidelines still excludes qualified applicants based on their race.
The true injustice of affirmative action programs aimed at rectifying past discrimination relates to the victims of these programs: students who are guilty of no discrimination on their own but who are held collectively accountable for their race’s past actions. The message of Brown was that individuals cannot be defined by their skin color, that race is not relevant in students’ educational abilities and is therefore an improper means of separating children between different classrooms. Yet certain affirmative action policies do just that, reducing students to their membership in either victimized or privileged races and making admissions contingent on that membership.
The same argument applies to the justification ultimately advanced by the Court in the 2003 case, which suggested that race-based affirmative action can be justified when it advances colleges’ compelling interests in achieving campus diversity. Certainly, colleges have an interest in exposing students to different perspectives in the classroom. However, race-based affirmative action programs assume that membership in a given racial group provides students with distinct viewpoints, when in fact, a number of socioeconomic factors likely play a greater role in contributing to their unique perspectives. The problem isn’t that students are being defined by one of their traits (race); it’s that the trait used to define them is an irrelevant one in evaluating their educational opportunities. For example, black students on average score 56 points lower than their white counterparts on the SATs; in contrast, students from the lowest socioeconomic grouping score 399 points lower than those from the highest.
In addition, race-based affirmative action typically benefits only middle- and upper-class minority students, leaving poorer applicants, who truly need a leg-up in the admissions process, without options. A 2004 study of 146 top universities (most of which use race-based affirmative action) found that 74 percent of students were from the highest socioeconomic quartile, and only three percent came from the lowest. Furthermore, class-based systems can still provide for racial diversity on campus, especially when measures beyond personal wealth—such as local poverty levels, parents’ education, and neighborhood school quality—are used to measure socioeconomic status. The 2004 study indicated that race-based affirmative action programs resulted in a student body that consisted of 12 percent African-Americans and Latinos, while no affirmative action system lowered the value to four percent. Finally, a class-based system would provide ten percent representation for these groups. It wouldn’t bring minority admissions to the same levels as race-based systems, but it would come close, and it would do so without consigning students to particular races assumed to define their identities.
In his dissent in the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson—the case Brown overturned —Justice John Marshall Harlan noted, “Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.” Harlan’s words are even more relevant today, when racial differences have become an outdated means of establishing diversity and economic distinctions mark the best indicator for distinguishing applicants. Chief Justice John Roberts expressed it best: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” That’s the attitude that we should take—the attitude that Brown calls on us to take—in college admissions in the twenty-first century.
Peter M. Bozzo ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a government concentrator in Eliot House. His column appears biweekly.
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