Holistic approach an alternative to affirmative action, by Clarence Page

7/6/2023, 6 p.m.
Reading about the Supreme Court’s unsurprising affirmative action ruling, I was reminded of Sen. Hubert Humphrey’s defense of the landmark ...

Reading about the Supreme Court’s unsurprising affirmative action ruling, I was reminded of Sen. Hubert Humphrey’s defense of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act.

If anyone can find language in the bill, said the Minnesota Democrat, that would require an employer to hire based on percentage or quota related to color, race, religion or national origin, “I will eat my hat.”

The bill passed and, fortunately for Sen. Humphrey, he never had to eat his hat, despite a half century of arguments over how precise racial or ethnic “goals” or “timetables” have to be before they constitute a quota.

A similar decades-long saga has unfolded over affirmative action to promote diversity at universities that accept federal funding, which the Supreme Court all but banned at colleges Thursday.

Having followed affirmative action debates for decades, I was surprised only by how unsurprised I was by the ruling.

I remembered Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s unusual prediction in the 2003 opinion she wrote for the 5-4 majority that decided race-conscious admissions did not unduly harm non-minority applicants at the University of Michigan Law School.

Near the end of the opinion, she included a prediction that now sounds prophetic:

“We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.”

That expectation proved to be correct with the high court’s ruling in lawsuits by Students for Fair Admissions against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina.

Attention to this case has been growing for years along with evidence that racial considerations have worked against Asian Americans. They’re more likely than other groups to enroll in selective colleges and universities, yet also more likely to be rejected by what amounts to de facto quotas.

So, as disappointed as some longtime supporters of affirmative action — like me — may be, I also can’t deny that, when a remedy to historical discrimination against minorities produces new unfairness to other minority groups, the remedy needs to be seriously reconsidered.

I have little doubt that universities will continue their efforts to diversify their student bodies with properly qualified students, as they should.

And, as much as Chief Justice John Roberts sharply criticized the purpose of race conscious admissions policies that the court had supported in prior cases, he also hinted at approaches that could offer similar diversity benefits without the apparent harm.

Justice Roberts’ court did not rule out considering students’ backgrounds and circumstances in what admissions officers call “holistic” reviews that look more completely at their profiles — beyond race or ethnicity.

This approach would give more weight to the applicant’s essay. Mentioning your race is no longer enough, for example, but admissions officers can still give credit to applicants who have overcome challenges that happen to be related to their race or other qualities that would bring unique experiences to the campus.

Admissions essays, like recommendations and other material, can help to construct a more holistic portrait than race or ethnicity alone to paint a compelling portrait of individual applicants.

Since applicants who have low incomes or no family wealth also are more likely to be racial or ethnic minorities, universities can achieve more of their diversity goals through the holistic approach that tries to be fair to everyone.

“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race,” Justice Roberts has famously declared, “is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

But, as an alternative, Justice Roberts appears to have little trouble with more holistic alternatives to race. I can hear the groans already coming from those who think race questions are complicated enough without wrestling with even more standards.

They’d rather deal with people as “individuals.” So would I. But, the best way to appreciate individuals is to appreciate all the aspects of themselves that make them special.

I’m not going to wager my hat like Sen. Humphrey did, but the holistic approach just might work better.

The writer is a syndicated columnist for The Chicago Tribune.