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On September 30, 2022, the New York Times published the results of a focus group that it had conducted with 12 college students. When the students were asked whether they think colleges should be allowed to use affirmative action in admissions, only one, a black 22-year-old, raised her hand. The remaining 11—including another black student, two Hispanic students, and an Asian American student—cautioned administrators against taking race or ethnicity into account when making admissions decisions. Doing so, they said, might lead some to believe that black, Hispanic, and Native American students only get admitted to elite colleges because of their skin color. 

“I feel like a lot of issues come from the otherization and ostracization of minority groups,” explained a 23-year-old white student. “And so I feel like, by introducing affirmative action, that would further ostracize that population that’s receiving that benefit because it could be looked at as, ‘Oh, look at that. They’re only here because of this.’” Lucy, a 20-year-old Hispanic student, agreed. “I’m for affirmative action because I’m Hispanic,” she said. “But I do feel that it’s going to be that label that’s going to be put on these minority groups that come in, especially Hispanics, that they don’t deserve to be here, they only got in here because of this.” Even the student who had raised her hand in support of the policy said: “I think the biggest issue with affirmative action is that it implies that people of color wouldn’t be able to get that position on their own.”

According to these students’ testimony—and to decades of accumulated evidence—the possibility looms large that making it easier for “underrepresented minorities” to gain admission to college might lead people to assume that members of this group are intellectually inferior. Yet this “stigma” associated with racial preferences is not often discussed.

In the 20 years since the Supreme Court explicitly authorized the use of racial preferences in admissions, institutions of higher education have operated under the false assumption that black, Hispanic, and Native American students unequivocally support the policy. Colleges and universities have actually argued that unless “underrepresented minority” students are surrounded by a “critical mass” of peers who share similar levels of melanin, these students won’t succeed.

In large part, this argument traces back to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s 2003 majority opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger. In upholding the race-conscious admissions policy of the University of Michigan’s law school, O’Connor cited testimony from the dean and director of admissions. Because “a critical mass of underrepresented students could not be enrolled if admissions decisions were based primarily on undergraduate GPAs and LSAT scores,” the dean said, affirmative action was necessary to ensure that the few black and Hispanic admits “do not feel isolated or like spokespersons for their race” on campus. (Of course, neither the University of Michigan nor any other college has ever defined what constitutes a “critical mass” of underrepresented minorities.)

Harvard advanced the same line of argument in Students for Fair Admissions, and its own students appear to have internalized the logic. In an amicus brief submitted by a “racially diverse group of students and alumni who seek to protect Harvard College’s freedom to consider race in admissions,” one low-income, Mexican American student detailed “the anxiety and self-doubt she often felt walking around campus and entering classrooms, only to find minimal racial diversity.” This student said that she “would ‘take note mentally of the number of people of color’ whenever she walked into a classroom and was far more nervous, and less likely to speak up, when her fellow students were less diverse.”

Such testimony only undermines the case for racial preferences. That a young adult felt so unsure of herself as a result of affirmative action should give advocates pause—not least because the same brief went on to note this student’s “extraordinary achievements across multiple domains, including her top-tier class rank, strong Advanced Placement scores, athletic success, and work as a newspaper editor and volunteer.” She sounds like someone who could have gotten into Harvard on the basis of merit; if she had, perhaps she would not feel “anxiety” and “self-doubt” at school.

The way to make underrepresented minorities feel at ease on college campuses is not to suggest, through racial preferences, that they are inferior to their white and Asian peers and require special help. It’s to treat them equally.

In 2013, economists Kate Antonovics and Richard Sander found that the yield rate (the probability of enrolling conditional on being admitted) of underrepresented minorities in college can increase in the absence of affirmative action. Using administrative data from the University of California system between 1995 to 2000, Antonovics and Sander examined the effect on yield rates of the state’s late-1990s affirmative-action ban. To their surprise, Antonovics and Sander found that yield rates for black, Hispanic, and Native American applicants increased at each of the UC’s eight campuses after the ban took effect. The surge was largest at UC–Berkeley, the most competitive school in the UC system. There, yield rates for underrepresented minorities grew by 5.7 percentage points, relative to Asian Americans. Eliminating racial preferences, Antonovics and Sander discovered, removed “the ‘stigma’ of being a ‘special admit,’” and “increased the signaling value of a UC degree for underrepresented minorities.” In other words, underrepresented minorities concluded that, in the long run, a degree from a school that admitted them on the basis of merit would be worth more than a degree from a school that admitted them on the basis of race or ethnicity.

Last month, shortly before the Court ruled in the Harvard case, the New York Times published an article describing more than two dozen interviews that it had conducted with black and Hispanic adults who had benefitted from race-conscious admissions. The purpose of this project, titled “How It Feels to Have Your Life Changed By Affirmative Action,” was, seemingly, to highlight instances in which race-conscious admissions had led to success—and to suggest that without it, future generations of underrepresented minorities will suffer.

Yet the story contained anecdotes reminiscent of the focus group that the newspaper held less than a year ago. In mentioning the stigma attached to race-conscious admissions, one black mother recalled how, when her daughter was accepted to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a colleague asked, “How did that happen?” After all, there was a “really smart” white student at the colleague’s church who did not get in. “Mrs. Zeigler felt her hackles rise,” the paper reported. “Should she mention that her daughter, Star Wingate-Bey, earned a near-perfect score on the verbal portion of her SAT? Should she cite Star’s leadership in the honors society?” Now that the Court has struck down affirmative action, she won’t need to.

Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)


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