Legalised Discrimination? The Issue Of Race In US University Admissions


The role of race in American education and public life has always been debated,  but recent court cases have once again brought forward the issue of how US universities use race during the admissions process to the fore.

The elimination of racial preference within 25 years was set as a goal by the US Supreme Court itself in 2003. In a recent court case brought against the University of Austin-Texas, the court’s conservative justices ruled that any policy allowing US universities to use race as a criterion for admission in place of academic performance must be temporary and time limited. One question from Chief Justice John Roberts to the university’s lawyer Gregory Garre during the 95 minutes of debate summed up the main questions surrounding the issue:

How does the university know when it has achieved its objective? At what point does it say, ‘OK, the plan has worked?’

While it was ruled that discriminatory policies themselves have to be time-limited, however, there was no call to end all racial preference based admissions policies and, most crucially, the Austin-Texas case was not placed under review in the future. Instead, for the third time in the last three years, the court indicated that the case might be heard again after a further period of ‘fact-finding’. Justice Anthony Kennedy complained during the debate:

We’re just arguing the same case… It’s as if nothing had happened.

The cyclical nature of such court cases illustrates the wider issue of a lack of racial equality and diversity in the US university system. Civil rights campaigner Rev. Al Sharpton, who was in the gallery during the court case, suggested that a constitutional decision ruling against racial preference based admissions could sound a ‘death knell’ for affirmative action policies encouraging the admission of ethnic minorities to American universities when the US is ‘nowhere near racial diversity in higher education.’ He added it could have ‘ripple effect in other areas of American life, like diversity efforts in the private sector with contracts and jobs’.

Perhaps the main reason why affirmative action remains a major component of the US university system

Admissions Graph
Some have suggested that Affirmative Action policies need to reduce the number of Asian Americans admitted to US universities, such as Berkeley (Image: The Atlantic)

is a lack of alternative means to encourage and engage students from black and other minority ethnic communities with the higher education system. Those calling for an end to the practice have pointed out the problem of ‘impostor syndrome’ and the Mismatch Theory, which suggests that racial preference in admission over academic criterion could do more harm than good in ‘hyper-competitive’ environments such as prestigious schools and colleges.

There are now also suggestions that Affirmative Action policies need to be amended to prevent a disproportionate influx of Asian Americans among those admitted to US Higher Education institutions. According to statistics from UC Berkeley, 49% of students admitted there last year were of Asian descent, which has led to worries that the increasing admission of Asian Americans could undermine the improvements to black representation at universities which have been achieved through Affirmative Action policies, including the record high of 12% Black students admitted to Harvard last year.

The main debate surrounding the use of Affirmative Action remains how diversity can be acheived without it. Mr Garre told the court that ‘now is not the time’ for the end of the practice and insisted that the university would end it as soon as diversity goals could be achieved without its use. Whether sufficient representation could be achieved without its use, however, remains a contentious issue.


Deputy Editor 2017-18, International Editor 2015-17. Languages graduate interested in Latin America, world news, media and politics.

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