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Column: We shouldn’t still be squabbling over affirmative action

The Old Well is pictured on Oct. 17, 2021.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Loretta Biggs ruled against the so-called Students for Fair Admissions in its lawsuit alleging that UNC discriminates against white and Asian applicants. This is one of three ongoing suits filed by the organization attacking affirmative action policies, including one against Harvard University that is currently under review by the Supreme Court.

Biggs notes in her opinion that UNC’s policies, while permissible, have not been adequate to achieve their supposed goals, writing that “the University is far from creating the diverse environment described in its Mission Statement.”

The new faux-progressive core of SFFA’s messaging is that the group is working to end racial discrimination against Asian American applicants.

This narrative is filled with holes. Many Asian Americans benefit directly from affirmative action, especially those who came to the United States as refugees.

Additionally, a 2020 study by AAPI Data found that a clear majority of Asian Americans support affirmative action policies. And if SFFA wanted to create more seats for white and Asian students, it would be fighting to expand class sizes instead of quibbling over a few of the seats currently available.

But despite these holes, the admissions debate remains intensely personal, and it's easy to get caught up in the rhetoric of "fairness." Anyone who has ever been rejected from a college has a stake in the game.

When a process requires such hard work and vulnerability from students, the mere possibility of being held to a higher standard based on race can quickly build into a righteous fury.

When Operation Varsity Blues, the F.B.I. investigation into a conspiracy of college bribery schemes, broke in 2019, we saw how quickly righteous fury can spread when the highly charged college admissions process is hacked. Thousands of headlines, a Lifetime movie and a Netflix documentary later, Americans have watched wealthy parents be arrested and prosecuted for gaming the system.

But we must be careful not to let our anger be misdirected. Yes, it is frustrating whenever anyone receives an advantage in college admissions — fair or not. However, the real problem is that we have to play this ridiculous game in the first place.

We must remember that affirmative action is the bare minimum. It doesn’t even begin to address why we have to fight over access to elite institutions or how to actually support students of color after enrollment. When we constantly rehash the tired affirmative action debate, we lose sight of how we must move past it.

Biggs, a double-HBCU graduate herself, notes in her opinion that, “Nearly seventy years after the first black students were admitted to UNC, the minority students at the University still report being confronted with racial epithets, as well as feeling isolated, ostracized, stereotyped and viewed as tokens in a number of University spaces.”

In June, UNC Student Body President Lamar Richards wrote in an open letter published in NC Policy Watch that prospective students from marginalized communities should consider “other options.” After decades of student advocacy and fundraising, UNC finally opened a Latinx Center and Asian American Center in just the past two years.

So yes, let’s fight vehemently to preserve UNC’s ability to factor race into admissions. But let’s not forget to question why UNC is an institution that some students of color don’t want to come to. Let’s not forget to question why we are asked to bet the weight of our dreams on college admissions in the first place.

Other university systems are possible. For example, Canada’s university system functions without the ridiculously convoluted admissions system we have, and most students are accepted simply on the basis of their high school transcript. As a result, the university one attends doesn’t have a dramatic impact on their career — yet Canadian universities still manage to command respect internationally. 

As long as race impacts our lives, universities will need to factor it into admissions in some form. These attacks on race-conscious admissions policies are clearly in bad faith. But we cannot be fooled into thinking affirmative action was ever meant to be a solution rather than a temporary Band-Aid.

@dthopinion |

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