College Admissions Inequalities Hamper Affirmative Action Solutions

In the past two years, American colleges and universities have experienced an all-out assault by the Trump administration against affirmative action. While President Donald Trump has previously supported affirmative action, he has reversed course in a dramatic fashion, and his cabinet secretaries have taken advantage of the powers of the executive branch to dismantle programs and rules designed to promote racial inclusion.

For example, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — the scion of a wealthy far-right family — is focused on overturning five decades of efforts to bring racial and ethnic diversity to colleges, while also seeking to destroy the education department’s Civil Rights mandate. While her outright malice to diversity has made headlines, DeVos is just a microcosm of the systematic and sustained effort by wealthy whites, most of whom were born into their status, to destroy affirmative action by perpetuating myths about American meritocracy.

The effort to undo Civil Rights progress by blue bloods began almost as soon as the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964. Wealthy whites, even those who espoused socially moderate or liberal views, resisted the idea of guaranteeing increased opportunities for people of color, and many — including liberal Democrats — argued that integration and so-called “racial quotas” undermined democracy and meritocracy.

Today, even with support for affirmative action at an all-time high and a majority of white people supporting it, efforts to dismantle racial preferences have finally borne fruit. That’s because wealthy whites, including the DeVos family, have helped fund shadow campaigns, fronted organizations, and engaged in public efforts to oppose affirmative action, while seeking to protect their own interests with legacy admissions. As one college dean recently wrote, “The mechanisms of affirmative action for wealthy white people are so well-oiled that few would know to name it. The process begins well before college: it’s societal and holistic and reaches beyond clichéd talking points about donated buildings and the influence of celebrity and prestige.”

Ironically, legacies are also in danger. As ProPublica reported, “The fates of affirmative action and...‘white affirmative action’ have long been intertwined. After the University of California, the University of Georgia and Texas A&M stopped using racial preferences, they discontinued preferences for alumni children as well. Although it’s generally regarded as legal for admissions offices to favor relatives of their graduates and benefactors, these advantages skew white.”

Wealthy whites today are using their influence more than ever to try to disentangle legacy admissions from race-based admissions in order to preserve their own hierarchies in college competition.

Funders like Leonard Leo have helped pack American courts with judges (including two Supreme Court justices) with blue bloodlines and a strong animosity toward racial diversity in hiring and admissions. Alumni of elite prep schools like Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh have been lauded by conservatives because of their opposition to affirmative action, even as both — the children of cloistered elites — benefited from white affirmative action.

Ironically, the use of white grievance as a weapon has largely sustained the war on affirmative action, even though wealthy whites have never “lost” seats to people of color. What’s more telling is that to guarantee a new caste system in higher education where only those born white and into wealth can get the competitive advantages of college admissions, white affirmative action’s beneficiaries are doing everything in their power to prop up a transparently false idea of meritocracy.

Moreover, they are relying on a judicial system packed with judges hostile to Civil Rights to back them, even as public opinion — particularly in light of the recent pay-to-play admission scandal — turns against them. Sadly, it just might work.

About the Author

Murali Balaji is a journalist, author, and academic with nearly 20 years of experience in diversity leadership. He is the founder of Maruthi Education Consulting and is a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Professor and the Pupil (2007), a political biography of W. E. B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson, the editor of Digital Hinduism (2017) and co-editor of Desi Rap (2008).