The response of institutions like Harvard could play a pivotal role
This week’s Supreme Court rulings presage a busy season of political strategising ahead of the 2024 elections. One of the most consequential decisions of this session was its ruling that colleges and universities may not explicitly base choices about applicants on their race. In response, President Joe Biden remarked that “this is not a normal court”. Alas, it is the one he has to contend with.
Over the last decade, the issue has become a fraught one on college campuses, particularly around the potential disadvantages placed on Asian American students. Although they count in the progressive vernacular as “people of colour”, these students are still seen by some admissions departments as benefitting from a series of privileges (usually “white” privileges) which are inaccessible to black and Latino students.
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It has thus been a useful political tool in the hands of the Republican Party, which is looking to erode support for the Democrats among Asian Americans. The GOP put this to good effect in the 2022 midterms, which saw Asian American voters continuing to vote for Republicans in greater numbers. For their part, Democrats have used it as a way to shore up support among key constituencies of black and Latino voters, while using advocacy campaigns like “Stop Asian Hate” as a rearguard action to staunch the bleeding (the party’s share of the AAPI vote declined from 79% in 2016 to 61% in 2020).
But Thursday’s ruling on affirmative action is more likely to close off political opportunities than open new ones for both parties. According to a New York Times poll, 74% of all Americans believe public colleges and universities should not be able to use race as a factor in admissions (as well as 60% of Democrats). This is also supported by a recent Pew Research study, showing 50% of Americans disapproving of the consideration of race or ethnicity in admissions.
When the data is sliced by race, only 47% of black respondents said they approve of the practice, with 29% indicating approval and a notable 24% saying they weren’t sure. Even in California, it’s worth remembering that a 2020 ballot measure that was proposed to lift the state’s ban on affirmative action was overwhelmingly defeated by 57% to 43%.
How the Supreme Court ruling will come to shape the 2024 election has a lot to do with how institutions comply with the decisions. For example, if Harvard and other Ivy League colleges take an exceptionally expansive route through potential loopholes to still skew admissions against Asian Americans, Republicans could take advantage of this. Given that many Asian Americans reside in California and New York, this would mostly benefit the GOP in securing or possibly expanding their majority in the House of Representatives, and perhaps upending some more school boards and municipal elections.
For Democrats, the issue will not galvanise the base in the same way that last year’s Roe v. Wade’s decision did. Given that relatively low percentages of all racial groups support affirmative action, it is not a winning issue for Joe Biden or his party. The ruling may, in fact, signal a slow ebbing away of culture war and identity politics issues as a useful element of either party’s platform. As a result, in 2024 both the Republicans and the Democrats will have to show they have real things to offer Americans, beyond just more ways to antagonise one another.