Editor’s Note (6/29/23): On June 29 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned universities' ability to consider race in admissions. In this October 2022 opinion piece, two researchers reflect on scientists' responsibility to combat racism and defend affirmative action.

The U.S. Supreme Court will soon hear arguments in two cases related to affirmative action: Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina and Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College. At the heart of these cases is the question of whether race-conscious admissions in higher education are constitutional. In other words, can universities in the United States consider race among the multitude of factors, such as grades, standardized testing scores and extracurricular activities, that lead them to admit a student.

The Court has repeatedly ruled in favor of affirmative action in higher education, but in this case, Students for Fair Admissions is asking them to overturn Grutter v. Bollinger, which has upheld race as part of the admissions process since 2003. If overruled, affirmative action in admissions would be at risk at colleges and universities across the country, especially primarily white institutions that have historically excluded people of many racial identities due to discrimination and educational injustices. Affirmative action remains necessary to provide legal protection to consider race in admissions as part of these institutions’ efforts to create a diverse student population.

Scientists play a crucial role in assuring equitable access to colleges and universities. Education is fundamentally an issue of human rights, and affirmative action in admissions is one tool in a larger strategy to address social injustices and shape the future of scientific research. Yet white supremacy, whether systemic or interpersonal, is still deeply ingrained in society, leading to financial and social disadvantages for nonwhite students. As scientists, we must fiercely defend affirmative action, if we wish for equity in science and in U.S. society.

In the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision, the majority opinion expressed hope that affirmative action would no longer be needed 25 years later. A contemporary argument against affirmative action is that society has now reached a post-racism state in which racial differences in achievement can be attributed to personal failures: some people don’t have the innate ability to succeed, or they just need to try harder. In the context of persistent educational inequality among socially-defined races, these arguments invoke “scientific” racism, or centuries-old myths such as that people with darker skin are biologically less intelligent, which has no actual scientific basis. In addition to the fact that humans do not have biological races, this argument also discounts the myriad ways in which slavery, colonialism, genocide and racial and ethnic discrimination have led to well-documented and persistent economic and social consequences for nonwhite people. As scientists, we need to improve the public’s understanding of systemic racism as an unjust social, political and legal power structure, as well as that there are no innate “deficiencies” in nonwhite people. Clearly, we will need more than 25 years to achieve such a goal.

People fighting against affirmative action in admissions have long used scientific racism as their justification to end it. In one infamous example, Bernard Davis, a Harvard Medical School professor, claimed that differences in academic ability between Black and white students were genetic. In an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, he insisted that affirmative action “quotas” would lead to “an erosion of internal standards” at Harvard Medical School that would degrade the quality of medicine in the U.S. and endanger “trusting patients.” After significant backlash, Davis backpedaled on his biological arguments in public, but he expanded on them and continued to endorse them in his personal correspondence.

In a Library of Congress collection of evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson’s documents, we discovered that Wilson and Davis supported the notorious scientific racist J. Philippe Rushton. We found a letter from May 1990, from Davis to Rep. James Scheuer regarding Scheuer’s push to expand the Head Start program in U.S. schools. Davis wrote, “Head Start has not come close to eliminating the gap in academic performance between black and white students. This result supports much other evidence suggesting that a large fraction of the gap in such performance, and in IQ tests, is genetic in origin; hence inequalities in achievement are only partly due to discrimination.”

Until the end of his life in 1994, Davis continued to be an influential figure among scientists who regularly corresponded with each other and publicly pushed the narrative of innate IQ differences among races, including Richard Herrnstein, one of the authors of the pseudoscience book The Bell Curve, as well as Rushton, William Shockley and Arthur Jensen. Most of these scientists received funding from the explicitly white-nationalist Pioneer Fund.

The inability of “race scientists” to produce any compelling evidence for their bigoted claims, coupled with gains in STEM diversity, the broader Civil Rights Movement and the work of anti-racist scientists, have made race science theories increasingly irrelevant in scientific circles. However, this pseudoscientific “research” continues, occasionally giving renewed energy to racist and culturally influential popular-science books like Herrnstein’s, or A Troublesome Inheritance, by former New York Times reporter Nicholas Wade. These works inspire racist discourse, and have proven dangerous: studies of the genetic basis of IQ and educational attainment, often with dubious results and exceedingly small effect sizes, were used by the person who murdered 10 Black people in a racially motivated mass shooting in Buffalo earlier this year.

Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other minority-serving institutions provide world-class education for people of all races and play a critical role in providing opportunities in higher education for Black students. HBCUs award one quarter of all STEM degrees earned by Black students and confer 73 percent of their degrees to Black students, but they have been intentionally under-resourced and treated as inferior to primarily white institutions. Between the years 2010 and 2020, the total of HBCU students was a small fraction of the 19 million students across all colleges and universities. We need affirmative action at primarily white institutions to serve the Black and brown students who make up the millions of students who go to college and university each year.

Supporting affirmative action aligns with many goals of our professional societies. The National Science Foundation and other organizations have prioritized improving both the numbers and the success of racial and ethnic groups that are underrepresented in STEM programs, including Black, Latine, American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students. Developing a diverse STEM workforce not only improves innovation, but it can help mitigate the lasting effects of centuries of racial discrimination and white supremacy. 

The level of education a person attains is a predictor of their life expectancy. Higher education also has intergenerational benefits, as the children and grandchildren of people who graduate from college are also more likely to do so. Systemic racism continues to affect educational achievement and earnings in the U.S., with Black and brown adult demographics showing slower progress in improving educational outcomes than white adults.

Affirmative action is rooted in the Civil Rights Movement, and its advocates intended to rectify overt and systemic injustices toward Black and brown students. However, leaders of primarily white institutions have altered race-conscious admissions to emphasize the importance of maintaining “critical masses” to promote “diversity” within a primarily white student population. Campus and admissions policies tailored to white students reinforce racial hierarchies and maintain the supremacist ideology that initially prevented Black and brown students from participating in higher education programs in significant numbers. We must center Black and brown students in educational law and policy to maintain and strengthen the original tenets of affirmative action, in addition to upholding it as status quo.

As we wait for a decision on the upcoming Supreme Court case, we should be discussing how best to use our limited options if SCOTUS overturns Grutter. We asked Dr. Joseph Graves Jr., evolutionary geneticist and AAAS fellow at North Carolina A&T, what we can do. What he told us captures the urgency of fighting ahistorical narratives against affirmative action in higher education that neglect the context and important work of minority-serving institutions (MSIs):

“Should the SCOTUS overturn Grutter v. Bollinger, thus essentially ending affirmative action at historically white institutions of higher education, they must simultaneously order that all states who violated the 1879 Plessy v. Ferguson decision by siphoning funds away from black education to support white education must immediately pay those pilfered funds into black public-school districts and HBCUs. Furthermore, they must order that going forward, a moon-shot level investment in the infrastructure of HBCU/HSI/MSI and Tribal Colleges must be put in place to meet the need for equitable education for non-whites in the United States.”

We agree.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.