Affirmative Action – What it is and Why Does it Matter

Current Issue

The lawsuit accusing Harvard University of discrimination towards Asian Americans has finally made it to Court. Although this case was initially presented by Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) in 2014, trial officially began on October 15th of this year. The plaintiff, SFFA, is arguing that Harvard holds Asian Americans applicants to a far higher standard than other applicants. SFFA claims that Harvard’s Admissions staff consistently gives Asian American applicants low ratings of courage, likeability, and other positive personality traits while evaluating their applications- strongly enforcing the negative stereotype that Asian Americans are solely gifted at math and science and lacking in personality. As a result, SFFA has accused Harvard of violating Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The act forbids the use of racial discrimination in programs that receive federal funds. They are now calling for a “race-blind” admissions protocol in order to ensure that this discrimination will end.

What Is Happening?

Currently, the lawsuit is largely focused on research presented by Dr. Peter Arcidiacono, a Duke University economist hired by SFFA to analyze six years of Harvard’s admissions data. Arcidiacono testified that his research shows patterns of African Americans applicants benefitting the most from Harvard’s admissions policies, followed by Hispanics, Caucasians, and lastly, Asian Americans. Furthermore, Arcidiacono expressed his belief that the data demonstrated clear “evidence of discrimination against Asian-Americans in the admissions process, both in how they rate applicants and in the decisions themselves.”

Admissions officers from Harvard, on the other hand, insist that they have never rejected an applicant based on their race. However, Harvard has expressed concerns over disclosing details of their “prestigious” admissions process to the public. As a result, they have not been willing to provide admissions-related documents that they insist would prove that they do not engage in racial discrimination. If Harvard continues to refuse to provide evidence in their favor, the Court could force the university to make drastic changes to their admissions system.

History of Affirmative Action

It is important to understand that race has been a part of the admissions process for decades.  After President Lyndon Johnson declared in 1965 that business and universities should make an effort undo the impact of past discrimination against African Americans, many universities began to give minority applicants special preference in higher education. Some universities were able to take this idea of affirmative action and implement it legally within their admissions process.

Other universities, however, struggled to implement an affirmative action system that worked effectively and still met the anti-discrimination requirements set by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. One example is the University of California Davis Medical School, which instituted a racial quota system requiring that a certain number of students in each class must be minority applicants rather than Caucasian. The Supreme Court ruled in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978) that racial quota systems, such as this one, allow for blatant discrimination by barring Caucasian applicants from certain “seat” in a program – solely based on their race, and regardless of their academic and personal characteristics.

However, in an effort to acknowledge the importance of racial diversity in higher education, the Supreme Court supported the idea of using “racial preferences” rather than quotas.  In fact, Justice Powell specifically praised Harvard as having an ideal system in which applicants could not be excluded or admitted based on race but instead could receive a “plus” on their application if they were part of a minority group. This way, Harvard could still take race into account, as long as they consider it as one of many factors. As a result, there has been a general consensus for decades that race could legally be a factor in the admissions process, permitted that it did not allow for any applicants to be excluded from applying.


Overall, the Harvard lawsuit is linked back to a much larger debate of whether or not affirmative action should be present in the admissions process. Proponents argue that affirmative action is essential in order to make up for past wrongs against minority groups. Opponents claim that affirmative action only enforces the negative mindset that minority applicants cannot be accepted on their own merits, and need extra help to make it through the admissions process. Similar to other affirmative action cases prior to the Harvard lawsuit, the Court’s ruling, in this case, could be extremely influential toward admissions procedures across the Nation.  

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