Critics of affirmative action are hoping that a new report released Wednesday will strengthen their case when the Supreme Court begins deliberations next week about the role of race-based college admissions.
The new report by Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and a prominent advocate of class-based affirmative action, says the race-neutral policies of the nine states that already by law cannot factor race into admissions decisions have been largely successful.
Advocates for affirmative action strongly dispute the report, citing the University of California’s concession that its class-based admissions policy has been a failure.
The issue is certain to be a contentious one that will be felt in the last few weeks of the presidential election.
“If there were a better way we’d love to see it happen, but we haven’t,” Hilary Shelton, senior vice president for policy and advocacy at the NAACP, said of race-neutral alternatives to ensuring minorities are represented at leading colleges .”What we keep seeing happen is when these programs are stripped away, we end up doing much worse in the areas of integration.”
The new report by Kahlenberg purports to have evidence from at least some of the nine states that don’t use affirmative action that leading public universities can bring meaningful diversity to their campuses through race-neutral means.
That conclusion is vigorously disputed by supporters of race-based affirmative action, including universities in states like California which cannot under state law factor race into admissions decisions.
The University of California and others call them a failure that’s left their campuses inadequately representative of the states they serve.
Kahlenberg acknowledged that highly selective universities like UCLA and the Universities of California-Berkeley and Michigan haven’t recovered from drop-offs in minority enrollments after voters in those states outlawed racial preferences.
But in most places, the report argues, a combination of measures — aggressive outreach, de-emphasizing of standardized tests, affirmative action based on class instead of race, and even getting rid of legacy preferences that mostly benefit whites — has allowed minority representation on their campuses to recover to previous levels.
Seven states have banned racial preferences in admissions outright — Washington, Michigan, Nebraska, Arizona, New Hampshire, California and Florida. In Texas and Georgia, leading public universities use a race-neutral system, although the University of Texas has maintained some use of affirmative action. It’s that policy at UT that’s now before the court in a case brought by Abigail Fisher, a rejected white applicant. Arguments are next Wednesday.
“It’s the central question in Fisher: whether race-neutral alternatives will work,” Kahlenberg said.
In its last two major affirmative action decisions, in 1978 and 2003, the court essentially took universities at their word when they argued it’s impossible to achieve adequate racial diversity without factoring race into admissions. But in the 2003 decision, involving the University of Michigan, the court also indicated it would pay close attention to race-neutral experiments in the states to make sure racial preferences were really necessary to achieve diversity.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, who dissented in the case nine years ago, is considered the swing vote on the high court because he believed colleges needed to try harder to achieve diversity by other means before resorting to racial preferences.