America After Affirmative Action

Adam Harris on where the end of the policy would leave college and university hopefuls

Students walking on a college campus
Students walking on a college campus (Andy Sacks / Getty)

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The Supreme Court may soon rule against race-conscious admissions at colleges and universities. I called the Atlantic staff writer Adam Harris to talk about how this week’s news fits into the broader story of higher education in America.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.

A Dirty Open Secret

Isabel Fattal: As someone who has followed the affirmative-action issue for years, what was the most surprising or notable moment for you in Monday’s five hours of oral arguments in the Students for Fair Admissions cases against Harvard and the University of North Carolina?

Adam Harris: One thing I found kind of surprising was a line of questioning from Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Considering the pressure that ending affirmative action in admissions would put on universities to find race-neutral alternatives, he asked a lawyer for SFFA about whether a university could give preference to descendants of slaves.

And the lawyer replied that it likely wouldn’t be permissible, since it was basically a proxy for race. Then Kavanaugh followed up by asking whether a university could give a preference to people whose families were immigrants, and they said that it likely would be permissible. The lawyers were effectively contending that yes, all of these other things can be considered. But the one thing that has helped improve numbers of underrepresented and marginalized minorities cannot be permitted. I thought that was a blunt admission.

Isabel: Let’s back up a bit: You recently interviewed the sociologist Natasha Warikoo, who argues that we’re asking the wrong questions about college admissions. Can you talk about how the American obsession with meritocracy leads to a misunderstanding about how the admissions process works?

Adam: Because there are only so many seats at the institutions that attract a large number of applicants, this has created this understanding of higher-ed admissions, more broadly, as a sort of zero-sum game, one that prospective students can manipulate in some ways by doing the most extracurriculars, having the highest test scores, having the most AP classes, or whatever it may be. There’s this idea that if you do all the right things, then you should be rewarded by getting into X place.

Let’s say an institution only has 1,600 seats, and there are a lot of applicants who had really high GPAs, really high test scores, and a lot of extracurricular activities. There are all these institutional priorities that work into admissions, and that change from year to year. Maybe the college accepted a bassoon player three years ago, and they don’t need another bassoon player until the next year. So that additional credential might not push you over the edge that year, but it might in the next admissions cycle.

Admissions officers often say they’re shaping a class, rather than just saying, Here’s the best 1,600 students who all have perfect test scores and perfect GPAs. We’re going to admit them. And if one of them says, We’re not coming, then we move to the next person. That’s not how the system works.

Isabel: It seems like that misunderstanding has contributed to concerns about race-conscious admissions policies and how they might undermine meritocracy.

Adam: I’ve written about the black box of higher-ed admissions and how it generates these challenges. You’re trying to put your best foot forward, but you don’t understand how an admissions decision was made. You’re like, Oh, they say it’s a holistic admissions process, but how exactly are you making this decision? It makes people concerned about, Did I get a fair shake?

Isabel: One of the big questions that comes up in the affirmative-action debate is whether there is any type of proxy for race that would enable universities to achieve similar levels of diversity in their student body. What do you think?

Adam: If you look at the states that have banned the use of race in admissions, none of them has been able to find a proxy for race. The Texas “10 percent plan” [which guarantees Texas high-school students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their class automatic admission into any publicly funded state university] is probably the one that’s cited the most and has come closest, but it doesn’t necessarily work, because you’re pulling from a larger pool of white applicants because of how demographics are shaped. You also have instances of people moving into certain school districts in order to get a leg up in the admissions process.

More generally, if you try to use socioeconomic status, you’ll find that there are more poor white people in the country than poor people of any other race. If you did it by geographic location, that also doesn’t work, because that would be demographically the same as if you did it by socioeconomic status.

Isabel: You wrote last year that “affirmative action has been a veil obscuring the truth about American higher education.” If the Supreme Court removes that veil, what will Americans start to see?

Adam: In my book, I wrote that America’s higher-education system has a dirty open secret: It’s never given Black students an equal chance to succeed. If you take away affirmative action, you’re left with a system where the most well-resourced institutions have the fewest Black and brown students, and the least-resourced institutions—the ones that have historically served these students—are the institutions that are ultimately taking on more Black and brown students.

If the use of race in admissions goes away, it will become increasingly important to fund the institutions where those students attend, so as not to further deepen the inequities that are already entrenched in American society.


Today’s News
  1. Thomas Barrack Jr., a former adviser to Donald Trump, was acquitted on charges of serving as an agent for the United Arab Emirates and lying to federal investigators.
  2. Under Elon Musk’s new leadership, Twitter has started laying off employees across the company.
  3. The U.S. added 261,000 new jobs in October, a stronger level of job growth than expected.


Evening Read
A quill pen casting a shadow in the shape of a sword.
(Paul Spella / The Atlantic; Getty)

The New History Wars

By David Frum

Even by the rancorous standards of the academy, the August eruption at the American Historical Association was nasty and personal.

The August edition of the association’s monthly magazine featured, as usual, a short essay by the association’s president, James H. Sweet, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Within hours of its publication, an outrage volcano erupted on social media. A professor at Cornell vented about the author’s “white gaze.” A historian at the University of San Diego denounced the essay as “significant and substantial violence.” A historian at Knox College, in Illinois, organized an email campaign to pressure the AHA to respond.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break
Eddie Redmayne and Jessica Chastain sit on the floor of a hospital in "The Good Nurse"
Eddie Redmayne and Jessica Chastain sit on the floor of a hospital in The Good Nurse (JoJo Whilden / Netflix)

Read. As we look ahead to the midterms, Atlantic writers recommend the books that explain American politics today.

And if you’re hoping to keep spooky season going a little longer, this 125-year-old classic still packs a punch.

Watch. The new season of The White Lotus on HBO tackles the sex lives of the one percent.

The Good Nurse on Netflix charts another path forward for the true-crime genre.

In theaters, Aftersun traces the bittersweet journey of coming to see a parent as their own person.

Listen. The bonus tracks on Taylor Swift’s album Midnights are where she hid her rawest, messiest feelings.

Play our daily crossword.


I asked Adam what he’s been up to these days when he’s not keeping up with the affirmative-action story. “I’ve been listening to a lot of Charley Crockett—The Man From Waco on repeat,” he told me. “I’ve been reading John Feinstein’s Where Nobody Knows Your Name, on life in the minor leagues. Those two things, coupled with the World Series, have been keeping me sane.”

— Isabel