Posted on November 8, 2022

Why Scientists Must Stand for Affirmative Action and Against Scientific Racism

Stacy Farina and K Amacker, Scientific American, October 31, 2022

The U.S. Supreme Court will soon hear arguments in two cases related to affirmative actionStudents 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. {snip}


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.”


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.