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UNC and Chapel Hill Black leaders respond to SCOTUS affirmative action decision

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“I’ve said for many years — when you fight, you may win, you may lose. But if you don’t fight you can’t win.”

Theodore Shaw said that about the future of affirmative action after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Students for Fair Admissions v. UNC in June and struck down the practice in higher education.

Shaw is a Julius L. Chambers distinguished professor of law and the director of the UNC Center for Civil Rights, which works to dismantle structural racism through research and advocacy. For most of his life, he said he respected and honored the Court.

“While it didn’t always get it right, there was a possibility of the Supreme Court of the United States to lay in ways that continued the work that was done during Brown v. Board of Education and to think about equality and to desegregate America,” he said. “I don’t feel that in this moment.”

In 2017, Shaw said, the center was stripped of its ability to represent individuals who experienced racial discrimination. He said the Board of Governors felt that type of work was “inappropriate” for any center on UNC’s campus to conduct.

Impacts on the community

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Black enslaved people built foundational buildings for the University, several of which are still in use today.

Danita Mason-Hogans, a local historian and seventh-generation Chapel Hill native, said her ancestors worked on the Mason plantation as farmers who grew food and raised animals to feed the University. 

“If you look at the history of education, specifically in Chapel Hill, North Carolina — you look at families like mine who served and fed and cultured and nurtured and were locked out of this University until 1955 — to simply say that the affirmative action programs should be shut down is not enough,” she said.

After a federal court order, the UNC School of Law admitted the University’s first Black students in 1951. Black students were admitted to other schools within the University only after Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954.

Mason-Hogans said that, while conversations about equity in admissions are important, people should also focus on how students are set up for success before college.

“There has been a history of promise and a history of not living up to that promise in Chapel Hill,” she said. “Meanwhile, the achievement, and therefore opportunity gap, for Black students in Chapel Hill who are generationally from here has been as wide as it ever was since schools desegregated in 1966.”

A 2018 Stanford study found Chapel Hill-Carborro City Schools to have the second-largest achievement gap between Black and white students in the U.S.

Factors in admissions

Erika Wilson is a professor of law at UNC and director of the Critical Race Lawyering Civil Rights Clinic, where students merge critical race theory with the practice of civil rights law. 

Wilson, who has worked in admissions for several law schools, said there were factors other than affirmative action that could give applicants an advantage.

“There’s a false assumption that college admissions is 100 percent meritocratic and fair,” she said. “That colleges are just looking at tests and grade scores and picking the best candidates based on tests and grade scores. That is 1,000 percent false.”

One example, Wilson said, can be found in legacy admissions. 

Legacy preference applies to students whose parents, grandparents or great-grandparents attended the institution. Because UNC restricted admissions to white applicants until the early '60s and admitted very few Black students until the '80s, Wilson said, legacy admissions primarily benefit white students.

According to a letter sent by the vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions in 2018, 48 percent of in-state applicants who were children of alumni were accepted the previous year, while 40 percent of those out-of-state applicants were accepted. 

For that application year, UNC’s acceptance rate was about 23 percent overall.

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When taking these other factors into account, affirmative action measures end up being a conservative course correction, Wilson said. She said this is because people from racially marginalized groups have been disadvantaged historically by conditional admissions markers and processes.

Visions for the future

The Court's decision will change how and where applicants can address race-related topics in their applications to universities.

"I read the Supreme Court decision as a call to universities who are genuinely concerned about maintaining racial diversity to more carefully read the essays and to engage in more of an individualized assessment of individual applicants," Wilson said.

She also said future litigation could push universities like UNC that have a documented history of racial discrimination to enact remedial admissions programs.

Mason-Hogans said the University and Town of Chapel Hill need bold leadership and targeted programs for the descendants of enslaved workers at UNC. She said the announcement from Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz about free tuition for households who make under $80,000 was a good start, but more work needs to be done.

Shaw said he wants the University to continue to hold its value of inclusivity both in spirit and in lived experiences.

"I hope frankly that the University doesn't embrace a legal regime in which people are excluded on the basis of race," he said. "And I hope somehow, the University finds a way to continue to embrace inclusiveness — and it's the University's task to figure out how to do that."

@dailytarheel | university@dailytarheel.com


Emma Geis

Emma Geis is the 2023-24 copy chief at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as a copy board member and summer copy chief. Emma is a fifth-year pursuing a double major in journalism and media and African, African American and Diaspora Studies.