As a current undergraduate at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 29 ruling was especially enraging.
As a Chapel Hill resident of six years, I entered UNC-CH in 2021 knowing that racial tension existed on campus — the 2018 neo-Nazi rallies, famed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones being denied tenure in 2021, and more. Over my first two years, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the tight-knit pockets of culture that make students feel at home. That is now at risk more than ever.
Students bring more to a university than numbers can describe. Any attempt to diminish the ways that applicants are viewed holistically and apart from their “stats” is a step backwards. With all the speculation about what the ruling means for the future of admissions, everyone has the same question: Just how bad was it?
I don’t know. The ruling contains possible loopholes and gray areas that remain to be seen in action.
Here’s what I do know: UNC cannot afford the narrative established in the Supreme Court’s ruling. Emphasizing the separation of race and law establishes colorblindness as a social neutral and implies that we have already done what is necessary to rectify historical tragedies. This is false. In fact, “historical” is the wrong word here; they are ongoing tragedies.
For UNC, this is even more so the case. As a public institution, the UNC System aims to provide “service to the citizens of the State,” so we’ll focus there. North Carolina sits in the top half of states with the largest income gap by race (Black and white). Based on the Stanford CEPA Socioeconomic Disparities Index, North Carolina does not outperform its expected education achievement gap in any scenario (math or reading, fourth grade or eighth grade). Out of the five school districts with the highest achievement gaps between white and Black students in the nation, two are in North Carolina. One — Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools — is in UNC’s backyard.
Given that UNC selects 82% of its students from this in-state pool, acting as if there is no racial deficit in the admissions process seems absurd.
UNC’s history with race gets much more intimate. The university was built by enslaved labor on indigenous lands and originally funded by escheats, which often included human beings. As far as admissions, for the first 160 years of its existence as the nation’s oldest public university, race was the deciding factor on all undergraduate applications. Affirmative action is a nuanced subject, but the formula in the past was pretty straightforward: no African Americans.
According to a report from the National Center for Education Statistics, just 112 Black men completed a bachelor’s degree this spring at UNC-CH. That’s roughly 2.3% of the 4,951 students who did.
Legacy preference directly ties the university’s current admissions policies to those of the past. At 17%, legacy students make up a larger percentage of UNC’s student body than at the average public institution. If we’re trying to move forward and improve equity in admissions, legacy is quite literally holding us in the past. By selecting from children of alumni, the admissions office narrows its preference to a pool of applicants that is representative of a previous generation of UNC’s student body. In 1995, for example, UNC was over 80% white.
So when UNC recently took small steps towards making the process equitable, in spite of its history and present, and the Supreme Court came along and deemed it unconstitutional, I had the same reaction as many UNC students: Are you kidding me? That’s gotta be racist.
Higher education is the backbone of the definition of success in America. Giving someone the tools to chase their passions and a diploma to accredit their skills is the most direct way to improve their trajectory. If we could extend that opportunity to a wider array of people, why wouldn’t we?
Julian Taylor is a rising junior at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he studies public policy and urban planning. He is a member of the UNC Affirmative Action Coalition and a Morehead-Cain Scholar.