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“When we take away affirmative action, we are taking away diversity in universities, opportunities for underprivileged and underrepresented students, and a chance to be something more,” Emily Suh writes. Photo courtesy Unsplash+ In collaboration with Getty Images

Opinion | Ending Affirmative Action Will Not Bring Fairness in Mississippi’s Higher Education

On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court of the United States made a decision that will upend the college-admissions process forever: They dismantled affirmative action.

In the case of Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, SFFA alleged that Harvard’s use of Affirmative Action discriminated against Asian applicants, thus violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which states, “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” 

In light of this decision, Gov. Tate Reeves responded, “We will enthusiastically work to ensure that our universities across the state comply with both the letter and spirit of this decision. Our academic institutions will be stronger and more fair because of it.”

But will our academic institution be “stronger and more fair” without affirmative action? I doubt that. If anything, this decision will make admissions more backward—especially in Mississippi.

What Is Affirmative Action?

To those who don’t know what affirmative action is, here’s a brief history:

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 10925 to ensure equal opportunity in government positions. He ordered that government contractors should “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.”

Four years later, in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson expanded this idea by issuing Executive Order 11246, which prohibited employers from discriminating based on race, color and religion. This Executive Order also required federal contractors to “take affirmative action to promote the full realization of equal opportunity for women and minorities.” Below is an excerpt of this order, Part II, Subpart B, Sec. 202(1):

“The contractor will not discriminate against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The contractor will 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. Such action shall include, but not be limited to the following: employment, upgrading, demotion, or transfer; recruitment or recruitment advertising; layoff or termination; rates of pay or other forms of compensation; and selection for training, including apprenticeship.”

The whole point of the creation and enforcement of affirmative action was to create equal opportunity for those who were previously excluded, those who were excluded on the basis of their sex, their religion and particularly their race. 

This instance is not the first time that affirmative action has been challenged. In 1978, Allan Bakke, a 35-year-old white man, challenged the Regents of the University of California and argued that the reason why he was twice rejected from the University of California Medical School at Davis was because of his race. 

At the time, the school reserved 16 spots out of 100 in each entering class for “qualified” minorities as part of their affirmative-action program. While the Supreme Court had upheld the use of affirmative action as a part of the admissions process, they claimed that the University of California could not use their specific practice of affirmative action and ordered that Bakke be admitted.

Now here we are in 2023, 45 years later, and the Supreme Court of the United States has decided that affirmative action should no longer be permitted in the college-admissions process.

The Facts on Race

What Gov. Reeves said about “stronger and more fair” admissions is far from what will happen. After all, Mississippi’s enrollment statistics are anything but diverse. Let us look at the major universities in Mississippi, a state where almost 38% of residents are Black.

The University of Mississippi’s website lists the data from their Fall 2022-2023 Enrollment. At the Oxford and Regional campuses, only 11.4% of the students are African American, 4.1% are Asian, 5.1% are Hispanic or Latino, 0.4% are American Indian, and 0.1% are Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. Compare that to the 76.3% who are white. 

Mississippi State University’s Fall 2022 Enrollment data shows that (excluding international students) 15.8% of students are Black, 1.7% are Asian, 3.9 are Hispanic, 0.55% are American Indian or Alaskan Native, and 0.05% are Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. Compare that to the 74.7% of students who are white. 

The University of Southern Mississippi’s Common Data Set for 2022-2023 shows that of the undergraduate students enrolled, 28.3% are Black or African American, 1.7% are Asian, 4.2% are Hispanic or Latino, 0.4% are American Indian or Alaska Native, and 0.1% are Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander. Compared to the 59.6% who are White.

Delta State University’s Mini Factbook 2022-2023 and 2022 Fall Factbook only show “White,” “Black,” and “Other.” Even still, white student enrollment dominates by 53.2%, Black enrollment is at 36.1%, and other is at 10.7%.

These numbers reflect an obvious racial disadvantage even while affirmative action was in place.

It seems obvious that affirmative action is still something that is needed. Of course, plenty of other outside factors can be overlooked if we just focus on race in enrollment statistics. And while diversity is an important factor in discussing the equity and equality of college admissions, that is only the tip of the iceberg.

What Does the Decision Mean for Mississippi?

Since the ruling, I have heard many responses to this decision. Some sources have been optimistic about the future of college admissions: There would not be an “unfair” leg-up from the race criteria, and people of all races would truly be considered equally; admissions boards would focus on the merit of students; and there would be a more “holistic” approach to judging a candidate. 

Male college students looking at computers
“Will our academic institution be ‘stronger and more fair’ without affirmative action? I doubt that. If anything, this decision will make admissions more backward—especially in Mississippi,” Emily Suh writes. Photo by Priscilla Du Preez 🇨🇦 on Unsplash

Others have condemned this decision: Systemic racism is overlooked, socioeconomic disparities prevent students from having the same educational background, and legacy admissions still exist.

The ruling that race cannot be a factor in discussing college admissions overlaps with a lot of issues. In our country, especially in the State of Mississippi, race is tied to many facets of living, such as education and socioeconomic conditions. This oversight puts minorities such as Black Mississippians at a disadvantage because while their race is not considered, their education and test scores will be. 

The World Population Review shows that Mississippi has the second-highest Black poverty rate at 30.87%. This means—in accordance with the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2022 population estimates—that about 343,071 Black people live in poverty. This also means, based on the 19.4% poverty rate, that about 60% of Black people are below the poverty line.

Many Black communities, especially those with higher poverty rates, have schools that are underfunded and therefore do not have the same advantages and resources as other schools. They do not have ACT or SAT prep classes, nor do they have Advanced Placement or dual credit classes. Not only that, but students may not have the funds to take standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT multiple times to achieve their highest scores. 

ACT’s website lists a regular no-writing ACT exam at $68. SAT’s website says that a regular registration fee is $60. While both ACT and SAT provide waivers for their exam fees, these can only be used for a max of two or four times. Thus, meritocracy is not a fully “fair” way of admitting students.

Then we deal with the issue of legacy admissions. While the universities I mentioned above are all public institutions, I do not want to gloss over the existence of legacy admissions in the entirety of higher education. It is no secret that universities rely heavily upon legacies for donations to fund the school. In a Forbes article, Michael T. Nietzel cites the Wall Street Journal and says that in 2020, “56% of the nation’s top 250 institutions considered legacy in their admissions process.” 

On June 3, after the Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action, groups protested that affirmative action still exists for white students in the form of legacy admissions. They claimed that 70% of Harvard’s donor and legacy applicants are white, and entering a university as a white legacy student is six times more likely than as a regular applicant.

Unfortunately, the denial of affirmative action takes away a lot of opportunities for students of color. The existence of affirmative action is not just about race but about the socioeconomic disparities that come with it. When we take away affirmative action, we are taking away diversity in universities, opportunities for underprivileged and underrepresented students, and a chance to be something more. Gov. Reeves may say that “(individuals’) race is not to blame for everything—good or bad—that happens in their lives,” but when you have been historically denied opportunities for higher education, and when you have been systematically oppressed, in a way, race is to blame.

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