Edward Blum’s ongoing campaign and Supreme Court cases to remove race as a factor in college admissions leverage a group of Asian Americans as plaintiffs. These Asian activists, many of whom oppose any form of race-conscious admissions, cite a 2018 analysis which found that Harvard “consistently rated Asian-American applicants lower than others on traits like ‘positive personality,’ likeability, courage, kindness, and being ‘widely respected.’ ”
As an Asian American college student, I empathize deeply with the concerns raised by these cases. For many Asian families, especially low-income and working-class immigrants, the opportunity to earn a prestigious college admission is their way to the American Dream.
However, I’ve had time to reflect on the role of race in college admissions. During my two terms as student body president at Washington University, I came to deeply appreciate the value diversity adds to my campus and the college experience.
Today, along with 70 percent of Asian Americans, I support affirmative action. As an Asian student leader, I have benefited from the diversity our university has fostered along the lines of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, geographic background, ability and ideology. I believe that affirmative action and holistic admissions are key to keeping diverse perspectives in our classrooms from which all learners benefit.
Related: College admissions is already broken. What will happen if affirmative action is banned?
If affirmative action ends, it will mean that future students will have fewer opportunities to discuss the ways in which identity has shaped their passions, motivations and trajectories. Preventing such discussions will lead to incomplete narratives that disregard the effect of race on applicants’ lives. Without affirmative action, we will have classrooms with less diversity of experience and perspective, excluding valuable voices and diminishing the quality of our education.
In a country that remains immensely stratified along race, class and educational background, a college campus can be one of the most diverse spaces students will enter in their lives. Often, it’s only on a college campus that people are consistently exposed to others with different upbringings.
Through conversation, collaboration and community-building, college provides opportunities to understand the world through a radically different lens — from the perspective of a Nigerian international student, a first-generation Asian student who grew up in Chinatown or a white student who grew up on a farm in rural Missouri.
Repealing affirmative action would endanger this diversity, as we’ve seen at the University of California and the University of Michigan, which were forced to abandon their affirmative action programs in 1996 and 2006, respectively. It would deprive students of all backgrounds of the opportunity to learn from one another.
These interactions are important in a multiracial democracy and a multicultural world. They build empathy by showing our shared humanity. Diversity not only enriches our educational experience but also our social lives and civil society by building bridges across diverse communities.
Affirmative action is no panacea for educational inequity, but it is a first step, and it recognizes that race is a fundamental piece of our identities.
I have grown to appreciate the strong sense of solidarity a diverse, multicultural campus provides. Black, Latino, Middle Eastern and Indigenous students and faculty were quick to join arms with Asian students when we were confronted with waves of anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic.
Together, we advocated for spaces on campus to build community and called for greater leadership from the faculty and staff who represent our communities. Our similar experiences and a shared understanding of racism in America provided support when we needed it most. This solidarity can help minoritized students feel a sense of belonging and safety on college campuses that weren’t built for us.
Opponents often respond that affirmative action is not fair, arguing that white and Asian applicants are better qualified and more deserving of admission than Black and Latino students. Some base this assumption on a belief that Black and Latino students lack the aptitude or qualifications to succeed at competitive colleges, resulting in a “mismatch.”
Yet this belief has been disproven over and over again: At my university, Black, Latino and Native American peers consistently win national fellowships, host campuswide performances, serve in student government, found activist movements and produce impactful research, legislation and policy change.
Across the nation, underrepresented students of color enrich their campuses as students, athletes, leaders, entrepreneurs and advocates. For many of my peers, their experience of race has been vital in shaping their academic and professional ambitions. Some of us come from neighborhoods still suffering legacies of redlining, gerrymandering, deportation and voter suppression, and seek to break these cycles of violence.
Others want to enter medicine, business or law to provide services for communities left behind because of race, religion, class, immigration status or linguistic background. Race continues to powerfully predict educational attainment, health, income and political representation. Our racial identities connect many of us to our work and the world we seek to build: one without racism and racial inequality.
Affirmative action recognizes that race plays a powerful role in shaping our lives and merits consideration in admissions as one facet among hundreds of others — including class, achievement, background and opportunities.
Opponents of affirmative action falsely characterize its repeal as a move toward more meritocratic admissions. If other indicators for admissions continue to be allowed — characteristics such as legacy status, intergenerational wealth and institutional connections — children of white, wealthy elites will be favored at the expense of everybody else.
Related: OPINION: Why the upcoming affirmative action cases ignore the real issue in college admissions
Higher education institutions have long legacies of discrimination. For many years, students who looked like me would not have been considered for admission — much less allowed to serve as a student body president.
The history of racism at Harvard and UNC-Chapel Hill (the schools named in Blum’s Supreme Court cases) is why affirmative action is still necessary to address the legacies of institutional and interpersonal bias.
Affirmative action is no panacea for educational inequity, but it is a first step, and it recognizes that race is a fundamental piece of our identities. If the Supreme Court overturns affirmative action in 2023, it won’t just be a loss for underrepresented students of color: It will be a loss for all students.
Ranen Miao is a senior at Washington University in St. Louis. He served two terms as student body president and is passionate about ensuring access to quality education for all.
This story about affirmative action in college admissions was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.