School Daze: White Privilege Still Trumps Affirmative Action

As higher education diversifies, white privilege continues to expand.

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The News: Leaders in higher education and civil rights are regrouping after the Supreme Court’s decision upholding Michigan’s ban on the use of race in college admissions at public universities.

The ruling cleared the way for more states, through legislation or voter initiatives, to prohibit affirmative action. California in 1996 was the first to approve a ban, and seven states have followed. Some anti-affirmative action groups have said they have no plans to expand their efforts. The New York Times, however, has reported that an organization is seeking Asian students for racial-discrimination lawsuits against three top universities.

The court did not rule on the constitutionality of race-conscious admissions policies, allowing its 2013 decision in Fisher v. University of Texas to stand.

The Take: Affirmative action in college admissions remains legal, by the letter of the law. But now that protection is squishier than ever before. Rather than rehash the legalese, here are three reality checks about affirmative action in higher education:

* Reality check No. 1: Affirmative action in college admissions was already on its way out. Two decades of legal and political opposition have caused many schools to alter or dismantle their affirmative action programs. Another nudge came in the Supreme Court’s ruling in Fisher, which directed the lower courts to apply greater scrutiny to schools’ use of race in admissions.

Today only about a third of public universities and half of private institutions still use race in their selection processes. Yet opponents have remained dogged. If they press on, they will be taking on the bloodlust that drove the Arizona-modeled immigrant crackdowns, even though net migration from Mexico had stopped.

* Reality check No. 2: Fear of a black and brown planet. In 1976 white students represented 84 percent of total enrollment in American colleges and universities, according to the Department of Education. In 2011 white students made up 61 percent.

Between 2009 and 2011, blacks and Latinos entered four-year institutions at a higher rate than that of whites. The white undergraduate population grew by less than 3 percent, while the share of blacks increased by 8.5 percent, and Latinos by 22 percent.