Defend Truth


SA universities must heed how US counterparts handle admissions in wake of Supreme Court ruling


Nicoli Nattrass is Professor of Economics at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and co-director of the Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa. She is the former director of the Aids and Society Research Unit at UCT. Jeremy Seekings is Professor of Political Studies and Sociology at UCT. Nattrass and Seekings are the joint authors of Poverty, Politics and Policy in South Africa (Jacana).

The ending of race-based affirmative action in university admissions by the US Supreme Court has opened the door for empirical exploration of the nature of systemic disadvantage and closed it to ideological assertions that generalised racial redress is the only way to achieve ‘racial’ justice.

Thinking about “race” in the US has long influenced thinking in South Africa. This is most recently evident in the way contemporary American antiracism has become popular in the South African academy.

The US Supreme Court has just struck down race-based university admissions policies. We should pay attention. The debate has implications for how we think about the challenge of racial and social justice in South Africa.

Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion, ruled out the practice of taking into account race through the automatic award of extra points (as previously permitted by the Supreme Court, at least for a limited period of time). At the same time, Roberts allowed for racial disadvantage to be considered if applicants can show how their race created obstacles and challenges for them as individuals.

The three liberal justices dissented. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson reflected contemporary American antiracist thinking in arguing that generalised race-based affirmative action was necessary because systemic racial injustice in America (rooted in slavery and segregation and passed down the generations) had resulted in persistent “gulf-sized racial gaps”.

The conservative Justice Clarence Thomas countered that generalised affirmative action stereotyped and insulted black people and was blind to socioeconomic differentiation within the black community.

The Supreme Court decision reflects its conservative leanings. But views on affirmative action cross partisan divides. Most Americans, including many Democrats (both black and white), are wary of the racial stereotyping, and the corrosive impact of low expectations embedded in and promoted by generalised affirmative action.

Socialists such as Touré Reed argue that race-based policies are generally harmful in undermining the kind of cross-class coalition that underpinned the civil rights movement and in benefitting primarily the black elite.

Race and class disadvantage

Non-conservative Americans mostly support race-based affirmative action in universities, but many are open to the idea that racial and social justice can better be achieved through class-based affirmative action.

The liberal scholar Richard Kahlenberg joined the Supreme Court case against affirmative action. His view was supported by conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch who argued that directly addressing the socioeconomic inequalities underpinning the disadvantages of black Americans would be effective and fairer to other racial minorities such as Asian and Native Americans.

Justice Thomas concurred, pointing out that universities such as Michigan and California, which do not use race as a criterion for admission, nevertheless have achieved diverse campuses.

Whether this will be “enough” to guarantee racial justice, at least for black Americans, remains to be seen. The University of Michigan filed an amicus brief in support of the defendants (Harvard and the University of North Carolina) arguing that despite significant efforts over 15 years to achieve racial diversity through alternative targeting mechanisms, the enrolment of black and Native American students remains below the level achieved when race was taken into account.

The University of California (Berkeley) and the University of California (Los Angeles) also experienced an initial drop in the enrolment of black and Hispanic students when race was outlawed as a mechanism for selecting students in 1995, and it took 25 years to boost enrolment close to the original level.

The key challenge thus appears to be to develop appropriate measures of disadvantage that capture important aspects of racial and class-based disadvantage.

The Medical School of the University of California (Davis) does not consider race at all, but rather uses a socioeconomic scale to compensate applicants for multi-dimensional disadvantage (household income, parental education, neighbourhood, schooling etc). They have achieved rates of enrolment of black and Hispanic students greater than their population shares. Such success indicates that it is not inevitable that racial justice will suffer if race-blind measures of socioeconomic class are adopted.

Choices for the left

The political left now faces an important political choice: to prioritise class in its policies to promote both social and racial justice; double down on the contemporary antiracist assumption that race-based affirmative action is the only route to racial justice; or opt for some middle ground (such as suggested by Justice Roberts, in using class-based indicators and allowing for race to be considered at the margin and through personal statements).

A recent assessment in the New York Times argues that the Supreme Court ruling provides the Democratic Party an opportunity to regain its working-class roots, win votes and shift away from polarising identity politics. This seems incontrovertible. But to do so requires shifting away from hard antiracist assumptions about systemic racism and its redress, and towards the older civil rights coalition politics.   

Contemporary American “antiracism” holds that all objectionable racial disparities are the product of “systemic racism” — an over-arching structure, rooted in history, which cannot be picked apart into various components such as overt racial discrimination, socioeconomic disadvantage, and a deprived home and school environment.

Put differently, racial disadvantage is understood to have multi-dimensional aspects, but that their combined effect — in terms of perpetuating racial disadvantage — is understood to be so much greater than the sum of the parts that it must be dealt with in an explicitly racialised way.

There are two policy responses to this. The first response is to target the multi-dimensional foundations of racial disadvantage directly (e.g. adopt the UC Davis approach) and then provide an extra boost for those who can show that racism itself was a further obstacle. This position is favoured by many on the left and was endorsed by Roberts’ majority opinion in the Supreme Court.

Challenging the “legacy” practice of considering whether an applicant’s ancestors had attended a particular university would also promote racial diversity. This practice results in the admission of the mostly white descendants of previous generations of the American elite. Harvard officials admitted in court that “legacy” applicants were twice as likely to be admitted as applicants with the same academic record from low-income households.

The second response, as embedded in contemporary American antiracism, is to assume that class-based strategies (even with the removal of legacy admissions) will never account properly for racial disadvantage, and thus to reject it outright. This position is suspicious of, if not overtly hostile towards, class-based affirmative action, seeing it as denying the reality of racism.

In arguing for race-only measures of disadvantage, however, this position denies the reality of class, including class differences within the black population. Race-only-based approaches to university admission necessarily benefit those black applicants from better school districts and better-off families (as it is easier for them to achieve good academic records).

Race-only based affirmative action also incentivises universities to prioritise richer, fee-paying black students over poorer students in need of bursaries and financial aid.

The middle ground — targeting socioeconomic disadvantage and allowing race to be brought in as an additional factor where relevant — would be the most politically astute and egalitarian strategy.

Allowing applicants to talk about race in their personal statements is, of course, ripe for gaming and further racialisation of society. How much of a problem this will be depends on how much emphasis universities place on those statements — and on which kinds of individual testimony — rather than achieve diversity through socioeconomic indicators.

The ending of race-based affirmative action in university admissions in America opens the door for widespread experimentation to target systemic disadvantage directly through its multi-dimensional components. The extent to which it addresses racial and class disparities remains to be seen.

Either way, it has opened the door for empirical exploration of the nature of systemic disadvantage and closed it to ideological assertions that generalised racial redress is the only way to achieve “racial” justice.

Some South African universities — including our own University of Cape Town (UCT) — have implemented admissions policies that reflect lessons learned from the US.

Some of the worrying practices of Harvard and other elite American universities have also been reflected in South Africa, with admissions policies continuing to reward many applicants from elite backgrounds.

We in South Africa should pay attention to how American universities experiment with procedures that consider individualised experiences rather than generalised racial classifications. DM


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  • A Concerned Citizen says:

    This argument is very much in line with the DA’s Social Justice Policy – essentially a counter-offering to BB-BEE and affirmative action. If the problem is that people are in poverty, don’t use race as the criterion for redress – use economic indicators. Using race just allows the connected, black (almost exclusively) elite to capitalize, creating even more disparity rather than equity. A DA policy that targets the poorest or most in need will by virtue of sheer numbers and demographics benefit mostly or almost exclusively people of colour, hence achieving the racial redress. Affirmative action in SA has achieved neither socioeconomic redress nor racial redress – in fact, it’s made both worse.

  • Epsilon Indi says:

    For heaven’s sake, it’s really time people, particularly black people stopped living in the past. All peoples have experienced horrors in their history and they processed the horror and moved on, they don’t use them as excuses for underperformance. I’m gay, does that mean I whine about straight privilege and demand reparations, do I scream “homophobe” every other day, do I blame my failures on systemic homophobia ? It’s time people got over colonialism, slavery and apartheid and stopped holding onto them to use as bludgeons against their critics. I’m not saying forget them, I’m saying the time for using colonialism, slavery or apartheid as a weak excuse is over, the get out-of-jail-free card no longer has any value. When one lives in the past one is limited by it.

  • John Cartwright says:

    Thoughtful and helpful summary and analysis.

  • Rory Short says:

    The proper place to begin in preparing people for productive and fulfilling lives is in their birth families followed by nursery school. The later you begin with the process the more likely you are to find that the development horse has already bolted.

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