People rarely encounter race-conscious admissions policies when applying to college. Despite the dismay over how selective colleges are today, most four-year institutions accept more applicants than they reject.
But you’d never guess that looking at the angst over affirmative action, an issue that has ignited emotional debate and high-profile court cases for decades.
This week, a federal court in Boston began hearing arguments in a case brought against Harvard University by a group called Students for Fair Admissions. The group charges that Harvard’s ability to consider race in admissions allows the school to discriminate against qualified Asian and Pacific Islander applicants. Harvard counters that it uses a holistic admissions approach, in which race is one of many factors considered in evaluating an applicant, including the rigor of school curriculum and engagement in extracurricular and leadership activities.
While the case focuses on Asian applicants, views of affirmative action vary widely within this broad racial group. Nearly 60 percent of Asians and Pacific Islanders think affirmative action is a good thing, according to a recent survey. Looking at the subgroups, not everyone agrees on the same level. For example, 80 percent of Japanese Americans support affirmative action, but only 38 percent of Chinese Americans do. As a whole, Asians and Pacific Islanders are slightly more likely to have no opinion at all on affirmative action than to think it is a bad thing.
White Americans, on the other hand, have stronger views on the issue. They are more likely than any other racial group to oppose affirmative action, with nearly two-thirds opposing such policies, according to a 40-year study of public opinions. By comparison, only 10 percent of black people opposed affirmative-action policies.
But the vast majority of Americans will never be directly affected by these policies. Of the approximately 2,000 four-year not-for-profit colleges and universities in the United States, only 352 consider race [sociologicalscience.com] in admissions or about 18 percent. Only 124 “highly selective” colleges, such as Harvard, consider race as a factor. Thus, these highly selective, race-considering institutions represent only about 6 percent of four-year institutions in the United States.
Most students do not consider applying to these colleges, whether because of their geographic locations, their academic competitiveness or their elite status and high tuition costs. So why do many white Americans so vehemently oppose race-conscious college admissions?
In general, whites favor class-based, “colorblind” policies for college admissions. This allows them to minimize difficult discussions about how the history of racial exclusion and continuing discrimination in the United States influences inequality today.
Law professor Elise Boddie and more than 500 other scholars recently described how race-neutral approaches can exacerbate racial and ethnic inequalities in college admissions. The limited information that would be used in these approaches could erase applicants’ childhood backgrounds, including whites, and turn the college admissions process into a simple approach that education scholar OiYan Poon compared to popular dating apps.
It’s important to remember that these institutions have been exclusionary by nature since their founding. Highly selective colleges, and most colleges and universities in general, were built for and have focused on the educational and employment opportunities of white students. Racial and ethnic minorities were excluded from these spaces regardless of how qualified they were. This history explains why race-neutral admission processes fail to produce more diverse campuses.
Without race-conscious admissions, those racist historical systems continue to influence who has access to highly selective schools. Think about the benefits accrued by the children of alumni, known as ‘legacy students,’ for instance. In the college admissions process, they receive some of the biggest advantages when considered for a spot in the next year’s class. These benefits developed from the long history of racial exclusion to admit a small segment of white families regardless of academic prowess. You cannot have a legacy at an institution if your parents or grandparents were never allowed to enroll in the first place.
White Americans are invested in maintaining the status quo. The elite college sector holds a strong grasp on the possibility of getting into the high-paying, high-prestige firms in the U.S. Often, the marker of whether you are worthy of consideration for one of these positions is being admitted to an elite institution like Harvard. They are the gateway to the elite sector of society filled with financial security and prestige.
These schools offer power to afford more for one’s family and avoid financial insecurity, power to gain traction in a more competitive labor market. A prestigious college degree can provide this power for generations as children of alumni continue to receive strong advantages in the college admissions process.
Yet, a majority of white families and their children rarely consider these elite institutions to pursue their college educations. In some cases, they outright disdain these colleges and label them ‘elitist.’ Still they oppose affirmative action policies such as race-conscious admissions more than the rest of the nation. They are holding on to a societal legacy of racial exclusion that allowed generations of white Americans to find their way to financial security.
There lies an uncomfortable truth for whites to consider when it comes to affirmative action: They are opposing policies that take into account how historical and persistent inequalities impact other people’s children. Supporting colorblind views of history allows them to blame “biased policies” for their own hardships, instead of recognizing how racial exclusion has shaped the winners and losers of today’s society. In reality, it is policies like affirmative action that prevent them from enjoying the full racial privileges of the past.
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