How will UConn support students of color in a post-Affirmative Action America?

FILE – People protest outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, Thursday, June 29, 2023. The Supreme Court on Thursday struck down affirmative action in college admissions, declaring race cannot be a factor and forcing institutions of higher education to look for new ways to achieve diverse student bodies. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

The United States Supreme Court reversed affirmative action programs at colleges and universities in a highly anticipated decision June 29, 2023, rendering the use of “race-conscious” approaches to admissions unconstitutional. The ruling, decided on ideological lines by the six-Justice conservative majority, was announced just a day before two other controversial rulings striking down President Biden’s plan to forgive $400 billion and upholding some businesses’ right to discriminate against LGBTQIA+ people on religious grounds. 

The Court’s decision to reverse affirmative action programs sidelines nearly four decades of legal precedent protecting higher education institutions’ right to employ race as a factor in the admissions process. The purpose of these measures is to remedy the sharp, lasting racial divide driven by chattel slavery, stochastic violence by white supremacists, Black Codes, segregation and housing and job discrimination, as well as job restrictions targeting other groups like Asian Americans and migrants. This recent history has contributed to today’s landscape of racial inequality wherein, for instance, white households make as much as 10 times more than Black households per year. These consequences exert a direct impact on academia, judging by the fact that universities in states that have banned affirmative action have already experienced declines in attending students of color. 

Affirmative action programs are a means to an end — granting racial minorities full access to universities and fields that are predominantly white —  as opposed to an end in itself. The purposeful confusion of the two leads to the view that the intended result of affirmative action is “reverse discrimination” — a view that we believe is wrongful and misled. The Court’s ahistorical and politically-motivated ruling deliberately neglects the obstacle structural racism poses to people of color in political and economic life, reducing college admissions decisions to individual merit instead. While, on its face, the notion of “colorblind,” merit-based admission seems fair, it overlooks the fact that merit can be purchased; from private tutoring to highly funded departments and extracurriculars to well-connected internship programs, achievements that are considered meritorious are more readily available to communities with wealth than those without. In the face of history and practical reality, so-called “merit-based” admissions reward white privilege. 

President Joe Biden speaks on the Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action in college admissions in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Thursday, June 29, 2023, in Washington.(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The Daily Campus Editorial Board is concerned with the likely consequences of — and legal reasoning behind — the Court’s ruling. As such, we support the University of Connecticut in strengthening existing policies meant to support racial and economic diversity, in addition to exploring new ones. As UConn President Radenka Maric wrote in a communication responding to the ruling, UConn has an obligation to “play a pivotal role in helping to reverse through our actions, policies, and practices what President Lyndon B. Johnson famously referred to as ‘the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice’ that existed and still exists in American society.” We agree with this sentiment and support UConn’s stated goal of continuing to diversify recruitment in spite of the Court’s endorsement of “colorblindness.” We also support the continued use of the test-optional model in the admissions process, which will hopefully abandon the orthodoxy of standardized testing with substantial roots in race science and racial exclusion.

The Editorial Board also holds, however, that UConn’s approach to diversity and inclusion must reach beyond the phase of initial recruitment — and honor that diversity is only as meaningful as the corresponding redistribution of wealth and power that comes with it. UConn’s focus on growth and prestige among other major universities requires pushing up costs and forcing more competition within the university’s applicant pool. The increasing financial toll of higher education, including both tuition and housing, presents a barrier to communities of color whose ability to accumulate generational wealth has historically been stifled by racist economic policies. Absent affirmative action programs, many students of color and students from working class communities may lack the advantages afforded to students from wealthier, whiter backgrounds — advantages that the Court prefers to characterize as “merit.” 

FILE – Students walk through a gate at Harvard University, Thursday, June 29, 2023, in Cambridge, Mass. In the wake of a Supreme Court decision that removes race from the admissions process, colleges are coming under renewed pressure to put an end to legacy preferences, the practice of favoring applicants with family ties to alumni. At Harvard, which released years of records as part of the lawsuit that ended up before the Supreme Court, legacy students were eight times more likely to be admitted, and nearly 70% were white, researchers found. (AP Photo/Michael Casey)

At the same time, UConn should be thoughtful and intentional about implementing alternatives to affirmative action programs if those alternatives incentivize students to recount experiences having to do with racial discrimination or trauma. This risk is reflected in Harvard University’s response to the ruling, which states they will comply with the Court’s allowance that “universities may consider… ‘an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.’” Such a prerequisite for an attractive application would be highly exploitative of students’ racial trauma; furthermore, it amounts to a step in the application process that white students do not have to undertake. Students should feel free to share their experiences with racism and inequality without their resilience being commodified and romanticized by predominantly white institutions. The process of engineering a truly holistic admissions process that doesn’t gamify experiences with discrimination or hardship requires an ongoing, equitable dialogue between the administration and students of color. 

The reversal of affirmative action represents a massive blow to racial equity in the United States. As factories of both knowledge and economic development, universities that lack adequate representation of racial minorities will continue to produce scholarship from the point of and opportunities for people from more privileged backgrounds. The UConn community must demand that its administration and board of trustees uphold an admissions process that upholds inclusion, eliminate legitimately unfair advantages such as legacy admissions and expand access in the form of affordability and investment in cultural centers and programs. 


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