On October 31, a delegation of student protesters—outfitted in cyan bandanas and “#DefendDiversity” T-shirts—gathered in Washington, D.C. That morning, the Supreme Court began hearing oral arguments for two cases: Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) v. University of North Carolina and SFFA v. Harvard College. The decisions could eliminate the use of race-conscious admissions—and decades of legal precedent—as the court’s conservative majority appeared skeptical of the necessity of affirmative action during the initial oral arguments.
While attorneys argued legalities inside the court, students outside exchanged testimonies, frustrations and fears. David Lewis, political action chair of Harvard’s Black Students Association and a student leader of the Affirmative Action Coalition, introduced student speeches and led chants, saying that he considered affirmative action to be integral to his education. “Where I grew up, I was the only dark-skinned Black student,” Lewis told The Nation. “When I came to a diverse environment that utilizes affirmative action at Harvard, where I was able to engage in a Black community, I was allowed to trust my own voice and contribute to the educational environment.”
Protesters from the University of North Carolina echoed Lewis’s sentiment. Taliajah “Teddy” Vann, student body president at UNC, said that organizers had an obligation to “respond swiftly” and be present in the fight in light of UNC’s position. “I’m the first Black Student Movement president to ever be in this position,” Vann said. “I’m an accomplished student, and I would not have the ability to be in this space at all if I couldn’t get into the university.” The potential nullification of affirmative action sparks fears of segregation and erasure for some students. For Vann, a future without race-conscious admissions is “synonymous” with a “draconian” period of time when people of color were barred from educational opportunity.
After almost three hours of rallying, rain started to fall and quickly developed into a heavy shower. With the speaker shut down, Lewis had no choice but to shout his speech to the crowd. “Make no mistake!” he bellowed through the downpour, “My shirt says ‘Defend diversity,’ but I am on the offensive!”
Students for Fair Admissions and its supporters allege that race-conscious admissions discriminate against Asian Americans. By giving preference to Black, Indigenous and Hispanic students with lower test scores, affirmative action undermines meritocratic admissions, according to Edward Blum, the creator of SFFA and a conservative strategist—who is neither Asian American nor a student. “What they wanted to do on Monday was hear a case that will make college admissions easier for white kids. They just used AAPI kids to get there,” wrote Elie Mystal, justice correspondent for The Nation, earlier this month.
This isn’t Blum’s first attempt to dismantle affirmative action. In 2008, Blum helped bankroll white student Abigail Fisher’s lawsuit against the University of Texas. But the Supreme Court eventually affirmed the lower court’s decision in 2016 to dismiss Fisher’s claims. In 2021, Students for Fair Admissions sued Yale University, alleging discriminatory race-conscious admissions policies along the same lines as its previous lawsuits. The case is on hold pending the resolution of the previous two challenges.
At the rally, Asian American student protesters disputed Blum’s claim. Muskaan Arshad, a sophomore at Harvard, said that “affirmative action is essential to a meritocracy,” and that race-blind admissions would have hobbled her application to Harvard. Arshad grew up in Arkansas, and was heavily involved in activism in high school. Her organizing was informed by her experience as a brown person in Arkansas, and her college essay was about race. Without discussion of race, “my whole story would not be expressed,” Arshad said.
The narrative that affirmative action penalizes Asian Americans stems from misguided frameworks of merit, said Angie Shin, a student leader of the Affirmative Action Coalition and senior at Harvard. As a first generation Korean-American student in Los Angeles, Shin saw that many families in her community were entrenched in “cram academy culture,” which requires long hours of tutoring and standardized test prep to maximize grades and test scores. Asian Americans have to “battle all of these misinformed narratives that we are only as good as our grades,” created by a racist model minority myth, Shin said.
Joaquín Lara Midkiff, cochair of the Native and Indigenous Student Association at Yale, fears that the end of affirmative action will expedite Indigenous erasure in higher education. The percentage of Indigenous students in higher education populations is already very low. As of 2021, American Indian and Alaskan Native students constituted 0.3 percent of Yale’s enrollment, even though Native Americans make up 2 percent of the US population.
The defense of affirmative action is a “matter of survival” and “of critical existential importance” to Natives in higher education, said Lara Midkiff. “Even now, ostensibly with 40 years of precedent and settled law, [Indigenous students] are fighting to not collapse into obscurity as a community,” Lara Midkiff said. “It takes so much effort to just hold the bottom line every year.… we’re running the risk of seeing us really slip back decades.”
The Supreme Court will likely come to a decision on both cases in June. Until then, student organizers hope to lean into the spirit of intercultural solidarity that the protest galvanized. Several people noted that a highlight of the trip was when dozens of students met the night before the rally. People of color are often brought together through pain, said Momona Hadish, but that night was a moment of friendship and intimacy instead. “Even our joy is revolutionary,” said Hadish, the cochair of social justice for the Black Student Alliance at Yale. “Not just our protest.”
Both Lewis and Hadish emphasized the relevance of affirmative action beyond the admissions sphere. Hadish warned that its nullification “will ripple across all parts of our society, further entrenching existing disparities.” To Lewis, affirmative action is not a Band-Aid for fixing systemic inequity but a restorative practice that is integral to rectifying the nation’s legacy of white supremacy in the “spirit of reparations.”