When the Supreme Court in 2003 upheld the University of Michigan Law School’s affirmative action admissions policy, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote for the majority that “The Court expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.” Fourteen years later, we have not progressed as far as the court might have hoped concerning the representation of people of color at our nation’s most selective colleges and universities. And yet the Justice Department’s civil rights division plans to sue schools for bias against white applicants.
It’s important to note which institutions we’re talking about. There are approximately 5,000 colleges and universities in the United States. Affirmative action debates center on access to the 200 or so institutions that accept fewer than half of applicants. Critics of race-conscious admissions seem to care less about how many white students are admitted to California State University campuses or community colleges in my state; instead most conversations about race-conscious admissions are about access to Stanford and the 10 University of California campuses.
Although elite institutions have become more racially and ethnically diverse over time, the share of black and Latino students almost always fails to match their representation in our country’s overall population. According to the U.S. Census, 13.3 percent of Americans are black. At Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth and the University of Pennsylvania, only 7 percent of undergraduates are black, data from the U.S. Education Department shows. Even at institutions where students of color collectively make up more than half the student body, whites still make up the single-largest racial group. For instance, there are nearly twice as many whites as there are Latinos at the University of Texas at Austin. The enrollment of black and Latino students combined is 15 percentage points lower than it is for the dominant racial group at UT.
So then why is the Trump administration taking on this “project” under the guise of civil rights? Why this particular issue, instead of correcting the persistent racial segregation of America’s schools or fixing racial disproportionality in school discipline?
It seems the administration is invested in protecting white student overrepresentation at the most elite, most-resourced institutions — universities whose students tend to earn higher starting salaries than graduates of less selective schools and who are better positioned to ascend to positions of leadership in every sector of our economy.
Consider that whites make up 93 percent of the Senate and 78 percent of the House of Representatives. Ninety-two percent of governors are white. The majority of Trump administration Cabinet members and political appointees at the Justice Department are white. Almost all these white officials are college graduates. Therefore, investigating and suing institutions of higher education for bias against whites would help preserve white supremacy in our nation’s political leadership.
Our country has and will continue to become more racially diverse. This is a fact. Hence, any effort to sustain white overrepresentation and limit college access for students of color is a threat to democracy. Our economic wellness, national security, innovation and global competitiveness depend almost entirely on increasing the educational attainment of all our citizens, not just white Americans.
As MIT Professor Craig Steven Wilder masterfully documents in his book, “Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities,” enslaved blacks built — and profits from the American slave trade helped finance the construction of — many predominantly white institutions in our country. This includes the University of Alabama, where Attorney General Jeff Sessions attended law school. For hundreds of years, black Americans who helped build these campuses were not allowed to enroll at them; access has been restricted for generations of their family members. Race consciousness in admissions is one way these institutions can correct their long-standing records of racial wrongs.
There are two additional noteworthy facts. First, data from the 2016 Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers national career profile survey show that 85 percent of the chief college admissions officers across the country are white. Also, the National Association for College Admission Counseling collects racial demographics about its members (admissions professionals across all levels and a range of institutions); nearly 80 percent of members who reported their race in the association’s most recent survey are white. Given these demographics, the Justice Department would have to work really hard to show that an overwhelmingly white profession systematically discriminates against white applicants.
And second, decades of research confirms that students who attend racially diverse colleges experience higher cognitive gains and a vast array of other outcomes compared with peers who attend less diverse institutions. Studies show that although collegians from all racial groups benefit from being in diverse learning environments, white students benefit most. This evidence tipped the scale in the 2003 affirmative action cases at the University of Michigan.
If the Trump administration wants to represent the best interest of white students, it should leave legally sanctioned affirmative action programs alone.