A Raceless Race to the Top: The Overturning of Affirmative Action

Stuyvesant students react to the Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action and the impact it will have on their futures.

Reading Time: 8 minutes

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By Sara Shen

On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court overturned affirmative action in higher education, stating in its ruling that the race-conscious admission policies used by Harvard University and the University of North Carolina violated the 14th amendment, which declares that all citizens, regardless of race, have “equal protection of the laws.” At highly selective universities, affirmative action was a policy that promoted equity in the admissions process by allowing colleges to consider factors such as race, gender, and socioeconomic status when evaluating applicants. The Supreme Court decision has banned the use of race-based affirmative action while still allowing for other forms.

Affirmative action was slowly integrated into universities after 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson issued an order that required businesses (including colleges and universities) to provide equal employment opportunities for minorities. While in place, affirmative action aimed to compensate for systemically racist policies that disadvantage certain demographics—notably, Black Americans. For centuries, Black Americans were denied access to education, faced racial segregation in schools, and had unequal educational opportunities due to inequitable resource distribution. Furthermore, discriminatory laws and social practices historically limited their employment options and opportunities for advancement, making it extremely difficult to accumulate generational wealth. The effects of these practices linger today, with many Black Americans still struggling to access unevenly distributed educational resources, including affordable tutoring and standardized test prep services.

The decision to overturn affirmative action follows years of legal battles and social discourse over race-based admissions. In October 2022, Jon Wang, then a college freshman, joined the case against affirmative action. Like over 70 percent of Stuyvesant’s student body, Wang is Asian American. He reported a 1590 SAT score, a 4.65 GPA, and an impressive extracurricular profile as a competitive golfer, captain of the academic Quizbowl team, and co-founder of a golf data analytics app for which he developed the Java backend code. Despite this, he was rejected from six highly selective universities. After recalling how his guidance counselors stated that his race would put him at a disadvantage and advised him to avoid mentioning his race in college admission essays, Wang joined Students For Fair Admissions, a legal nonprofit that has been working since 2014 to overturn affirmative action-based policies. They told him that based on their acceptance model, he would have had a 20 percent chance of admission as an Asian American compared to a 95 percent chance if he were African American. Ultimately, his story played a significant role in Students For Fair Admissions’ fight against affirmative action.

Some Stuyvesant students have mixed feelings about the effect that affirmative action had on college admissions. Junior Maegan Diep commented, “It kind of goes both ways. It’ll open up more opportunities for other minorities and [will] definitely increase diversity. But I also feel like at the same time, [...] it’s also a little bit unfair because I wouldn’t want [to lower] my chances to get into a good college.”

Other students believe that affirmative action was never a fair method of accepting students. Anonymous freshman A explained, “I think that it’s unfair for some other races to be raised to a higher standard just to be admitted, compared to a different race who can have lower test scores [to be admitted].” Test scores are only a small part of the application process and can be heavily influenced by preparatory resources, meaning scores may not be reliable in assessing a student’s academic capabilities. However, even as universities increasingly move away from considering standardized tests like the SAT and ACT, some students feel that their numeric scores—which should not be open to interpretation—change in value when race enters the conversation. 

Junior Nathalie Cuevas explained in an e-mail interview how her Latina identity impacted the way she viewed the Supreme Court decision; as a minority student with family members who did not attend college, the decision provoked uncertainty. “[Affirmative action] was something that would’ve really [acted] as a cushion to fall back on in the college admission process. [...] As it was announced on the news, my great-aunt was very upset because it was right before I’m going to start applying, and it really does affect my chances. Generally, we didn’t know about [affirmative action] until my brother applied for college and we were really happy to have extra support because most of my family has not gone to college, so we had no legacy admissions nor experience.” For Black or Hispanic families that are unfamiliar with the college applications process because they never applied to universities themselves, affirmative action served as a comforting reminder that their backgrounds and any concurrent obstacles would be automatically taken into account.

The median household incomes of Black and Latinx families in the United States are much lower than those of white and Asian families, naturally affecting their access to resources, including SAT test prep and tutoring for advanced courses. This inequality perpetuates the cyclic nature of systemic racism and poverty in the U.S., as college degrees are necessary for many high-paying jobs. Indeed, only 23 percent of Black people and 15 percent of Latinx people have a bachelor’s degree or higher-level degree, compared with 36 percent of white people and 53 percent of Asians, pointing to a major gap in educational opportunities. 

Inequalities in college admissions start even earlier than high school. “Generally, my former schools were underfunded and they were located in Latin and Black dominated neighborhoods—and the same goes for my other friends. Also, it’s harder to understand some concepts because they are catered to only [some] races specifically, and it feels isolating,” Cuevas explained. 

However, it is also important to realize that perpetuating the idea that racial privilege holds true for Asian Americans in the same way it does for white Americans is harmful. It contributes to the “model minority” myth that falsely represents a narrative that Asians are by nature intelligent, hardworking, and successful—a misconception that doesnt take into account the long history of racial oppression Asian Americans face. 

Furthermore, 71 percent of Asian American adults are foreign born and 66 percent of Asian Americans speak a non-English language at home, putting them at a disadvantage when it comes to learning English. Generalizing “Asian Americans” under one umbrella term is in itself misleading since the label applies to many groups; it wrongly reduces East Asians, South Asians, and South East Asians to one and the same. On a more micro level, poverty rates across Asian American ethnicities vary drastically: 25 percent of Mongolian Americans live in poverty, compared to 9 percent of Indian Americans and 13 percent of Americans overall. 

At Stuyvesant, the overlap of race and socioeconomic background are evidenced by the fact that over 70 percent of the student body identifies as Asian American and 48 percent of Stuyvesant students are economically disadvantaged; the undeniable overlap that exists between these two statistics demonstrates that the demographic composition of Stuyvesant’s student body does not fit the national norm, and provides a nuanced portrait of the way that generalizing the success of Asian Americans in the U.S. fails to acknowledge exceptions. 

Students in favor of affirmative action cited the importance of diverse campuses. Freshman Caleb Lee said, “You can’t get a lot of learning from just being in a [majority] white school, just being in an [majority] Asian school, just being in a [majority] Black school [...] it’s not always about the academics, you're also learning history and different [cultures].” Essentially, diversity on campus—racial and otherwise—is key to helping students shape their world views, learn to connect with those who may at first appear different from them, and gain an understanding of a wide range of perspectives and life experiences. 

Some students noted that simplifying diversity to merely race or gender underrepresents the nuances of identity. Senior Shirina Rong stated, “I think it's a matter of recognizing the privilege that people have and understanding intersectionality when it comes to these things. [For example], affirmative action benefited white women the most because they got to kind of wipe away their Caucasian-ness because they were [women].” 

Though most people associate affirmative action with minority races, Rong was referring to the fact that some studies claim the group that benefited the most from affirmative action is white women. “[Universities shouldn’t reduce] everyone into just some tiny box that they check off when they’re filling out a common app[lication],” Rong continued.

Some students brought up the fact that universities can combat racial inequality in other ways. “[Instead] of affirmative action, people should focus on solving the root issues instead [...] [The government] should try to make funding for elementary schools in Black or [Latinx] neighborhoods better,” junior Ayesha Talukder suggested.

With affirmative action overturned, many people are directing their scrutiny to legacy admissions, a practice in which colleges prioritize applicants if they are the child of an alum, especially those who are donors. Harvard admissions revealed that around 70 percent of legacy applicants are white, which aligns with the historical precedent of the most sought-after schools also being largely white. 

Stuyvesant’s college counselors shared their thoughts on legacy admissions in a collective e-mail interview. “The level of detail shared about the admissions practices at these schools provided an unusually candid view into just how much of an advantage is given to athletes, legacy applicants, and the children of donors (known as development special interests). It leads to even larger questions about why this case was organized around race conscious admission and not these other groups.”

 It is not yet clear how the banning of affirmative action will impact college admissions. However, Rong stated that she has changed her approach to college applications by de-emphasizing her racial identity: "I don’t think I’m going to be talking as much about my heritage because I don't think that's going to be valued as much [...] I'm just gonna talk about my identity instead of the racial aspect of it," Rong explained. 

Stuyvesant’s college counselors, however, advised against students making any changes to their original application plans. “Our students should not alter their application plans as a result of the SCOTUS ruling; students who want to share their thoughts or experiences related to their identity should still do so in their applications, through their essay, supplements, additional information section, interviews, and introductory videos, as they see fit,” the college counselors stated. They explained that Chief Justice John Roberts, who voted against affirmative action, used language that allows universities to take racial experiences into account when looking at application essays. Justice Roberts wrote in the Court’s majority opinion that “Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion [in an admissions essay] of how race affected his or her life.” 

Students who are not applying to college yet are curious to see the results of this year’s applications before planning their own. “I'm kind of waiting to see how the 2024 class’ result is going to look for all these different types of schools to see what I really want to do,” Talukder said. “It’s definitely going to be interesting to see if college results or demographics of who is accepted into what schools changes.”

Stuyvesant’s college counselors expect no dramatic change in the demographics of admitted students, since universities have never admitted racially underrepresented students solely because of their race: “Because there already were no quotas or guarantees for [Black, Latinx, and Indigenous] students, we would not expect to see much of a change in college application outcomes. What is possible is that, out of an abundance of caution from future legal action, schools may be cautious about making sure that their data suggests a more uniform admitted student profile.”

As current high school students, it’s easy to get stuck in the mentality of viewing affirmative action solely as a mechanism that increases or lowers your chances of getting into a prestigious university. It is imperative to remain open to all perspectives since affirmative action is an issue that goes beyond college admissions. Affirmative action asks what racial equality is and who qualifies as a minority in America—questions that may never be fully answered but warrant discussion nonetheless.