Order in the Court: Students, experts weigh impacts as future of affirmative action unsure

Photo depicts the top of the Supreme Court building against a blue sky.
The constitutionality of race-conscious admissions has been debated since 1978. USC Race Equity Center chief researcher Kendrick Davis said SFFA v. Harvard and SFFA v. UNC could remove race as a college admissions factor. (Courtesy Ian Hutchinson | Unsplash)

This is the second article in an ongoing series investigating Supreme Court cases slated for the current term and their impacts on the USC community. In light of current events, the Daily Trojan News section believes it to be in the community’s interest to include the goings-on of the Court in our coverage. New installments will be published weekly.

President Lyndon B. Johnson issued Executive Order 11246 in 1965 following the successes of the civil rights movement — culminating in his signing of the Civil Rights Act. The Order required that federal contractors “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, color, religion, sex or national origin.”

More than half a century later, two cases on the Supreme Court’s docket are posing a substantial challenge to affirmative action as justices consider whether admissions programs that factor in an applicant’s race are unconstitutional. The Daily Trojan spoke with students, staff and University officials to understand the impact a potential repeal on affirmative action could have on USC.

Students for Fair Admissions — a nonprofit representing more than 20,000 students, parents and others, according to their website — is spearheading the two cases, one against Harvard University and one against the University of North Carolina. In their opening brief, plaintiffs claimed the “only realistic way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” They argued that affirmative action develops a “racial balancing” effect that admits less qualified applicants and counterintuitively discriminates against certain groups — such as Asian American students — who are more deserving of being admitted. 

The constitutionality of race-conscious admissions has been a source of heated debate in the Court since 1978, when the Court concluded in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke that racial quota systems used in admissions violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Three decades later, in 2003, the Court acknowledged state interests in considering race and a diverse student body in Grutter v. Bollinger, declaring that race could be one of the many factors considered in college admissions. This stance was sustained in 2016, when the Court wrote in deciding Fisher v. University of Texas that affirmative action was still a “compelling governmental interest.”

Given how the standards of affirmative action policies have evolved over time, Kendrick Davis, chief researcher of the USC Race Equity Center at Rossier School of Education, said that SFFA v. Harvard and SFFA v. UNC represent unique conditions that could potentially result in the elimination of race as a factor for college admissions.

“If you look at the dissents and pretty much all the affirmative action cases — and particularly Fisher v. Texas — you see this constant encroaching of, under the right circumstances, challenges to affirmative action that might actually be upheld by a new composition of the Court,” Davis said. “What we see now is this intersection of interests where the circumstances allow for SFFA v. Harvard and [SFFA v.] UNC.” 

Tyler Quick, a graduate student studying communication, said SFFA’s argument about the nature of affirmative action being racially discriminatory was an oversimplification of the reality of race-conscious admissions. 

“That opinion is so unmoored from reality,” Quick said. “If you deny people who’ve been historically denied opportunities, you’re compounding their misery, their oppression and the difficulty for those who do make it [in].”

Conversations around affirmative action have bred harmful myths among students at USC, said Kenna McGraw, a sophomore majoring in business administration. She relayed what she felt was a common assumption some USC students make about Black students in particular: that Black students would be incapable of gaining admission to USC without something else at play, either their status as athletes or because of affirmative action. 

“Anytime someone sees a tall Black man, they automatically think, ‘Athlete. You only got in because you’re an athlete,’” McGraw said. 

In a statement to the Daily Trojan Friday, the University said it joined an amicus curiae brief filed by the Association of American Universities in support of Harvard and UNC. 

“As a university community, we have always prized diversity in all of its many forms,” the statement read. “We are preparing as a university for the U.S. Supreme Court decision both to be responsive to the decision and to maintain our commitment to diversity.”

While it remains unclear as to how the Court will decide, Quick said that in the event that affirmative action policies are overturned, he is hopeful USC will continue admitting a diverse class regardless of SCOTUS’ ruling in June. 

“When you look at [USC’s] history, they’ve actually been on the right side of history with these admissions-based decisions,” Quick said. “I think USC will find a way to get around this, and I think that USC will always make sure that, in every single high school classroom where there’s a talented student, that [USC is] appearing as a possibility in that student’s mind.”

Feben Worku, a sophomore majoring in business administration, human biology and communication, said USC would find a way to uphold race-conscious values even if affirmative action policies are overturned, but diversity would still decrease. 

“They’re going to realize they don’t have to meet certain numbers, but I don’t think it’s going to be disregarded completely … I think the number of people of color will get worse and worse, but I don’t think that they’re gonna be like, ‘This is not something we’re considering at all,’” Worku said.

Briana Connors, a sophomore majoring in sociology, said the potential rollback of affirmative action policies at USC would affect non-white prospective students’ incentive to apply to certain universities.

“For incoming juniors or seniors in high school … if they are anything but a white student and they see that there’s not many people who are their race on campus, it’ll definitely discourage them from applying to schools and limit them from opportunities in getting an education that they deserve,” Connors said.

Only time will tell how the Court will rule. But if affirmative action were to be repealed, Connors said, its decision could impact future generations of Trojans, discouraging them from applying to USC.

“If there’s no one around you that looks like you or has [the] same background or experiences that you have, there’s no real motivation for you to enter that environment,” Connors said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Tyler Quick using the incorrect pronouns. The Daily Trojan regrets this error.