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‘Race Neutral’ Is the New ‘Separate but Equal’

Race, by definition, has never been neutral.

Illustration by Ben Kothe / The Atlantic

On the first day of class in the fall of 1924, Martha Lum walked into the Rosedale Consolidated School. The mission-style building had been built three years earlier for white students in Rosedale, Mississippi.

Martha was not a new student. This 9-year-old had attended the public school the previous year. But that was before Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, banning immigrants from Asia and inciting ever more anti-Asian racism inside the United States.

At the time, African Americans were fleeing the virulent racism of the Mississippi Delta in the Great Migration north and west. To replace them, white landowners were recruiting Chinese immigrants like Martha’s father, Gong Lum. But instead of picking cotton, many Chinese immigrants, like Gong and his wife, Katherine, opened up grocery stores, usually in Black neighborhoods, after being shut out of white neighborhoods.

At noon recess, Martha had a visitor. The school superintendent notified her that she had to leave the public school her family’s tax dollars supported, because “she was of Chinese descent, and not a member of the white or Caucasian race.” Martha was told she had to go to the district’s all-Black public school, which had older infrastructure and textbooks, comparatively overcrowded classrooms, and lower-paid teachers.

Gong Lum sued, appealing to the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal-protection clause. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. All nine justices ruled in favor of school segregation, citing the “separate but equal” doctrine from 1896’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision.

“A child of Chinese blood, born in and a citizen of the United States, is not denied the equal protection of the law by being classed by the state among the colored races who are assigned to public schools separate from those provided for the whites when equal facilities for education are afforded to both classes,” the Court summarized in Gong Lum v. Rice on November 21, 1927.

A century from now, scholars of racism will look back at today’s Supreme Court decision on affirmative action the way we now look back at Gong Lum v. Rice—as a judicial decision based in legal fantasy. Then, the fantasy was that separate facilities for education afforded to the races were equal and that actions to desegregate them were unnecessary, if not harmful. Today, the fantasy is that regular college-admissions metrics are race-neutral and that affirmative action is unnecessary, if not harmful.

The Supreme Court has effectively outlawed affirmative action using two court cases brought on by Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Organized by a legal strategist named Edward Blum, SFFA filed suit on behalf of Asian American applicants to Harvard as well as white and Asian applicants to UNC to claim that their equal-protection rights were violated by affirmative action. Asian and white Americans are overrepresented in the student body at selective private and public colleges and universities that are well funded and have high graduation rates, but they are the victims?

This is indicative of a larger fantasy percolating throughout society: that white Americans, who, on average, stand at the more advantageous end of nearly every racial inequity, are the primary victims of racism. This fantasy is fueling the grievance campaigns of Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis. Americans who oppose affirmative action have been misled into believing that the regular admissions metrics are fair for everyone—and that affirmative action is unfair for white and Asian American applicants.

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It is a fantasy that race is considered as an admissions factor only through affirmative action. But the Court endorsed SFFA’s call for “race neutral” admissions in higher education—effectively prohibiting a minor admissions metric such as affirmative action, which closes racial inequities in college admissions, while effectively permitting the major admissions metrics that have long led to racial inequities in college admissions. Against all evidence to the contrary, the Court claimed: “Race-neutral policies may thus achieve the same benefits of racial harmony and equality without … affirmative action policies.” The result of the Court’s decision: a normality of racial inequity. Again.

This is what the Court considers to be fair admissions for students, because the judges consider the major admissions metrics to be “race-neutral”—just as a century ago, the Court considered Mississippi public schools to be “separate but equal.”

Chief Justice John Roberts, in his majority opinion, recognized “the inherent folly of that approach” but doesn’t recognize the inherent folly of his “race neutral” approach.

History repeats sometimes without rhyming. “Race neutral” is the new “separate but equal.”

The Court today claimed, “Twenty years have passed since Grutter, with no end to race- based college admissions in sight.” In actuality, twenty years have passed, with no end to racial inequity in sight.

Black, Latino, and Indigenous students continue to be underrepresented at the top 100 selective public universities. After affirmative action was outlawed at public universities in California and Michigan in the 1990s, Black enrollment at the most selective schools dropped roughly 50 percent, in some years approaching early-1970s numbers. This lack of diversity harms both students of color and white students.

In its reply brief in the UNC case, SFFA argued that the University of California system enrolls “more underrepresented minorities today than they did under racial preferences,” referencing the increase of Latino students at UC campuses from 1997 to 2019. But accounting for the increase in Latino students graduating from high school, those gains should be even larger. There’s a 23-point difference between the percentage of high-school graduates in California who are Latino and the percentage of those enrolled in the UC system.

Declines in racial representation and associated harms extend to graduate and professional programs. The UC system produced more Black and Latino medical doctors than the national average in the two decades before affirmative action was banned, and dropped well below the national average in the two decades after.

Underrepresentation of Black, Latino, and Indigenous students at the most coveted universities isn’t a new phenomenon, it isn’t a coincidence, and it isn’t because there is something deficient about those students or their parents or their cultures. Admissions metrics both historically and currently value qualities that say more about access to inherited resources and wealth— computers and counselors, coaches and tutors, college preparatory courses and test prep—than they do about students’ potential. And gaping racial inequities persist in access to each of those elements—as gaping as funding for those so-called equal schools in the segregated Mississippi Delta a century ago.

So what about class? Class-based or income-based interventions disproportionately help white students too, because their family’s low income is least likely to extend to their community and schools. Which is to say that low-income white Americans are far and away less likely than low-income Black and Latino Americans to live in densely impoverished neighborhoods and send their kids to poorly resourced public schools. Researchers find that 80 percent of low-income Black people and 75 percent of low-income Latino people reside in low-income communities, which tend to have lesser-resourced schools, compared with less than 50 percent of low-income white people. (Some Asian American ethnic groups are likely to be concentrated in low-income communities, while others are not; the data are not disaggregated to explore this.) Predominately white school districts, on average, receive $23 billion more than those serving the same number of students of color.

When admissions metrics value SAT, ACT, or other standardized-test scores, they predict not success in college or graduate school, but the wealth or income of the parents of the test takers. This affects applicants along racial lines, but in complex ways. Asian Americans, for example, have higher incomes than African Americans on average, but Asian Americans as a group have the highest income inequality of any racial group. So standardized tests advantage more affluent white Americans and Asian ethnic groups such as Chinese and Indian Americans while disadvantaging Black Americans, Latino Americans, Native Americans, and poorer Asian ethnic groups such as Burmese and Hmong Americans. But standardized tests, like these other admissions metrics, are “race neutral”?

Standardized tests mostly favor students with access to score-boosting test prep. A multibillion-dollar test-prep and tutoring industry was built on this widespread understanding. Companies that openly sell their ability to boost students’ scores are concentrated in immigrant and Asian American communities. But some Asian American ethnic groups, having lower incomes, have less access to high-priced test-prep courses.

Besides all of this, the tests themselves have racist origins. Eugenicists introduced standardized tests a century ago in the United States to prove the genetic intellectual superiority of wealthy white Anglo-Saxon men. These “experimental” tests would show “enormously significant racial differences in general intelligence, differences which cannot be wiped out by any scheme of mental culture,” the Stanford University psychologist and eugenicist Lewis Terman wrote in his 1916 book, The Measurement of Intelligence. Another eugenicist, the Princeton University psychologist Carl C. Brigham, created the SAT test in 1926. SAT originally stood for “Scholastic Aptitude Test,” aptitude meaning “natural ability to do something.”

Why are advocates spending millions to expand access to test prep when a more effective and just move is to ban the use of standardized tests in admissions? Such a ban would help not only Black, Native, and Latino students but also low-income white and Asian American students.

Some selective colleges that went test-optional during the pandemic welcomed some of their most racially and economically diverse classes, after receiving more applications than normal from students of color. For many students of color, standardized tests have been a barrier to applying, even before being a barrier to acceptance. Then again, even where colleges and universities, especially post-pandemic, have gone test-optional, we can reasonably assume or suspect that students who submit their scores are viewed more favorably.

When admissions committees at selective institutions value students whose parents and grandparents attended that institution, this legacy metric ends up giving preferential treatment to white applicants. Almost 70 percent of all legacy applicants for the classes of 2014–19 at Harvard were white.

College athletes are mostly white and wealthy—because most collegiate sports require resources to play at a high level. White college athletes make up 70 to 85 percent of athletes in most non-revenue-generating sports (with the only revenue-generating sports usually being men’s basketball and football). And student athletes, even ones who are not gaming the system, receive immense advantages in the admissions process, thus giving white applicants yet another metric by which they are the most likely to receive preferential treatment. Even Harvard explained as part of its defense that athletes had an advantage in admissions over nonathletes, which conferred a much greater advantage to white students over Asian American students than any supposed disadvantage that affirmative action might create. And white students benefit from their relatives being more likely to have the wealth to make major donations to highly selective institutions. And white students benefit from their parents being overrepresented on the faculty and staff at colleges and universities. Relatives of donors and children of college employees normally receive an admissions boost.

Putting this all together, one study found that 43 percent of white students admitted to Harvard were recruited athletes, legacy students, the children of faculty and staff, or on the dean’s interest list (as relatives of donors)—compared with only 16 percent of Black, Latino, and Asian American students. About 75 percent of white admitted students “would have been rejected” if they hadn’t been in those four categories, the study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, found.

While private and public universities tout “diversity” recruitment efforts, their standard recruitment strategies concentrate on high-income students who are predominantly white and Asian, at highly resourced schools, positioned to have higher grade point averages and test scores that raise college rankings. Public colleges and universities facing declines in state and federal funding actively recruit white and wealthy out-of-state students who pay higher fees. At many institutions, including a UC campus, “admission by exception,” a practice originally promoted as a means of expanding opportunities for disadvantaged groups, has been used to enroll international students with the resources to pay U.S. tuition fees.

Targeting international students of color to achieve greater diversity on campus disadvantages American students of color. Targeting students from families who can pay exorbitant out-of-state fees benefits white families, who have, on average, 10 times the household net worth of Black families.

Affirmative action attempted to compensate not just for these metrics that give preferential treatment to white students, but also for the legacy of racism in society. This legacy is so deep and wide that affirmative action has rightly been criticized as a superficial, Band-Aid solution. Still, it has been the only admissions policy that pushes against the deep advantages that white Americans receive in the other admissions metrics under the cover of “race neutral.”

If anti-affirmative-action litigants and judges were really supportive of “race neutrality”—if they were really against “racial preferences”—then they would be going after regular admissions practices. But they are not, because the regular admissions metrics benefit white and wealthy students.

Litigants and judges continue to use Asian Americans as political footballs to maintain these racial preferences for white and wealthy students. Particularly in the Harvard case, SFFA’s Edward Blum used Asian plaintiffs to argue that affirmative action harms Asian American applicants. No evidence of such racist discrimination was found in the lower courts. According to an amicus brief filed by 1,241 social scientists, the so-called race-neutral admissions policy SFFA advocated for (which was just adopted by the highest Court) would actually harm Asian American applicants. It denies Asian American students the ability to express their full self in their applications, including experiences with racism, which can contextualize their academic achievements or struggles and counter racist ideas. This is especially the case with Hmong and Cambodian Americans, who have rates of poverty similar to or higher than those of Black Americans. Pacific Islander Americans have a higher rate of poverty than the average American.

Pitting Asian and Black Americans against each other is an age-old tactic. Martha Lum’s parents didn’t want to send their daughter to a “colored” school, because they knew that more resources could be found in the segregated white schools. Jim Crow in the Mississippi Delta a century ago motivated the Lums to reinforce anti-Black racism—just as some wealthy Asian American families bought into Blum’s argument for “race neutral” admissions to protect their own status. Yet “separate but equal” closed the school door on the Lums. “Race neutral” is doing the same. Which is why 38 Asian American organizations jointly filed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in support of affirmative action at Harvard and UNC.

A century ago, around the time the Court stated that equal facilities for education were being afforded to both races, Mississippi spent $57.95 per white student compared with $8.86 per Black student in its segregated schools. This racial inequity in funding existed in states across the South: Alabama ($47.28 and $13.32), Florida ($61.29 and $18.58), Georgia ($42.12 and $9.95), North Carolina ($50.26 and $22.34), and South Carolina ($68.76 and $11.27). “Separate but equal” was a legal fantasy, meant to uphold racist efforts to maintain these racial inequities and strike down anti-racist efforts to close them.

Homer Plessy had sued for being kicked off the “whites only” train car in New Orleans in 1892. About four years later, the Court deployed the “separate but equal” doctrine to work around the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal-protection clause to defend the clearly unequal train cars and the exclusion of Black Americans like Plessy from better-equipped “whites only” cars. Later, the Court used the same doctrine to exclude Asian Americans like Martha Lum from better-equipped “whites only” schools.

The “separate but equal” doctrine was the Court’s stamp to defend the structure of racism. Just as Plessy v. Ferguson’s influence reached far beyond the railway industry more than a century ago, the fantasy of “race neutral” alternatives to affirmative action defends racism well beyond higher education. Evoking “race neutrality,” Justice Clarence Thomas recently dissented from the Supreme Court decision upholding a provision in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that prohibits racist gerrymandering.

Now that “racial neutrality” is the doctrine of the land, as “separate but equal” was a century ago, we need a new legal movement to expose its fantastical nature. It was nearly a century ago that civil-rights activists in the NAACP and other organizations were gearing up for a legal movement to expose the fantasy of “separate but equal.” In this new legal movement, defenders of affirmative action can no longer use the false framing of affirmative action as “race conscious” and the regular admissions metrics as “race neutral”—a framing that has been used at least since the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke decision in 1978, which limited the use of affirmative action. Racist and anti-racist is a more accurate framing than “race neutral” and “race conscious.”

Affirmative-action policies are anti-racist because they have been proved to reduce racial inequities, while many of the regular admissions metrics are racist because they maintain racial inequities. To frame policies as “race neutral” or “not racist” or “race blind” because they don’t have racial language—or because the policy makers deny a racist intent—is akin to framing Jim Crow’s grandfather clauses and poll taxes and literacy tests as “race neutral” and “not racist,” even as these policies systematically disenfranchised southern Black voters. Then again, the Supreme Court allowed these Jim Crow policies for decades on the basis that they were, to use today’s term, “race neutral.” Voter-suppression policies today that target Black, Latino, and Indigenous voters have been allowed by a Supreme Court that deems them “race neutral.” Jim Crow lives in the guise of “racial neutrality.”

Everyone should know that the regular admission metrics are the racial problem, not affirmative action. Everyone knew that racial separation in New Orleans and later Rosedale, Mississippi, was not merely separation; it was segregation. And segregation, by definition, cannot be equal. Segregationist policies are racist policies. Racial inequities proved that then.

The Court stated in today’s ruling, “By 1950, the inevitable truth of the Fourteenth Amendment had thus begun to reemerge: Separate cannot be equal.” But it still does not want to acknowledge another inevitable truth of the Fourteenth Amendment that has emerged today: Race cannot be neutral.

Today, racial inequities prove that policies proclaimed to be “race neutral” are hardly neutral. Race, by definition, has never been neutral. In a multiracial United States with widespread racial inequities in wealthhealth, and higher education, policies are not “race neutral.” Policies either expand or close existing racial inequities in college admissions and employment. The “race neutral” doctrine is upholding racist efforts to maintain racial inequities and striking down anti-racist efforts to close racial inequities.

Race, by definition, has never been blind. Even Justice John Harlan, who proclaimed, “Our Constitution is color-blind” in his dissent of Plessy v. Ferguson, prefaced that with this declaration: “The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country” and “it will continue to be for all time, if it remains true to its great heritage.”

In the actual world, the “color-blind” often see their color as superior, as Harlan did. In the actual world, an equal-protection clause in a constitution can be transfigured by legal fantasy yet again to protect racial inequity.

“Separate but equal” then. “Race neutral” now.

Uma Mazyck Jayakumar is an associate professor in the School of Education at the University of California, Riverside.  Ibram X. Kendi is a contributing writer at The Atlantic. He is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University and the founding director of the university’s Center for Antiracist Research.