Northwestern community members sign onto amicus briefs as Supreme Court reconsiders affirmative action

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Daily file illustration by Olivia Abeyta

Community members have signed onto briefs on both sides of the affirmative action debate

As the Supreme Court considers two cases that could potentially outlaw affirmative action, Northwestern faculty and community members are getting involved by creating and signing onto amicus briefs in support of both the defense and prosecution.

Initiated by anti-affirmative action advocacy group Students for Fair Admissions, the lawsuit argues that the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause requires race neutrality in higher education admissions decisions — which would render affirmative action unconstitutional. Harvard University and the University of North Carolina’s admission processes are under the spotlight in these cases.

Affirmative action stems from an executive order issued by President Lyndon Johnson’s administration stating that organizations receiving federal contracts and subcontracts must expand employment opportunities for minority populations. 

History Prof. Deborah Cohen said considering the court’s conservative lean, she’s not surprised to see it reconsider the long-time precedent. Given her career experience, Cohen said she thought it was important to write a brief in defense of affirmative action.

“I’ve been lucky in that almost all of my career has taken place in classrooms in which affirmative action was a guiding principle of the constitution of the student body,” she said. “The brief argues that precisely the diverse classroom is both an educational good and also a social good.”

African American studies and sociology Prof. Mary Pattillo said she signed onto Cohen’s brief to show there is support among university professors to maintain affirmative action. 

Pattillo said she is particularly concerned of what doors could be opened if affirmative action is indeed overturned.

“The plaintiffs basically say race should not be considered at all in higher education,” she said. “It’s not clear to me what their end goal is, but I could imagine a next step being a ban on collection on racial data (in higher education).”

Pattillo added that states that have already banned affirmative action, including Michigan and California, could provide insight into a world without the policy. However, even this isn’t a perfect model, as public and private universities in those states have still tried to expand opportunities for disadvantaged students without explicitly stating so.

Meanwhile, seventh-year communication sciences and disorders Ph.D. candidate Momoko Takahashi, discussed her personal college application experience in a brief that argued in favor of overturning affirmative action.

As an Illinois resident, Takahashi said applying to colleges in the U.S. was frustrating to her at the time. Despite achieving strong grades and getting into “top schools” in both Japan and the United Kingdom, she said she was denied admission into many U.S. schools. She saw many other well-performing students in her high school class face the same results, while she said students with weaker academic records gained admission to these U.S. schools. 

“There is a huge problem in the United States with (the) K-12 system. Where you end up in college is largely correlated to your zip code,” she said. “Using race as a measure of that is not the base way to adequately address the racial disparities here in the United States, in terms of educational attainment.”

Takahashi knew one of the writers of the brief, and after relaying her story to them she was asked to help draft the argument. Takahashi said the current system doesn’t actually address educational inequalities. Instead, she supports a shift toward funding under-resourced schools and increase of academic opportunities in those communities.

She also said universities’ goals toward promoting diversity are often not clearly defined.

“If the class looks exactly like the racial distribution here in the U.S., is that diverse?” Takahashi asked. “No one has seemed to consider that question.”

Sociology Prof. Vilna Bashi also signed onto Cohen’s brief. She said she’s particularly concerned that racial inequalities will be left unaddressed in a post-affirmative action world, limiting access to education — a proven route to reducing economic inequality.

But even if the court ends affirmative action, Bashi said her support for the brief is a commitment that her values won’t change.

“My signing onto it is an acknowledgement I intend to use my career to push towards a more equitable society,” she said.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @GiangiulioDavis

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