In the aftermath of the June 2023 Supreme Court rulings (Students for Fair Admission, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College; Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. University of North Carolina et al.) banning race-sensitive (but not gender-sensitive) affirmative action in higher education, I wonder how transparency and explicit definitions about what we mean when we talk about race, racism and antiracism could change the conversation about the future of equity in higher education.
At the June 2023 Annual Research Meeting opening plenary on new perspectives for advancing health equity,” I asked: What’s your street race? If you were out in public, what race do you think others who do not know you would assume you are based on what you look like? The beauty of this question is that it dismantles the myth of race as genetic or biological ancestry and dislodges the misconception that race, and ethnicity or cultural heritage are interchangeable and concordant. It also underscores what Omi and Winant describe in their 2015 book, Racial Formation in the United States, as the irreducible visual, ocular, and corporeal dimension of race.
My own research on the mental health and physical health inequities and discrimination experienced by Latinxs published in the Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, Critical Public Health and the Urban Institute shows the promise of the street race conceptualization for policy relevant research. If we continue to conceptualize race as simply about one’s self-identity to the exclusion of race as a visual status that is based on others’ perceptions of your embodied racial status in social structures of power, inequality and privilege, our research and policies may miss opportunities to advance health equity.
In his book, Racism Without Racists: Color-blind Racism & the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America, sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva explains: “Antiracism begins with understanding the institutional nature of racial matters and accepting that all actors in a racialized society are affected materially and ideologically by the racial structure.” In other words, although none of us created structures of inequality based on race (or gender, ethnicity, class, disability, sexuality, citizenship, etc.), we are all located within these systems of power, privilege, inequality, and resistance, even when we deny their existence. By outlawing narrowly tailored race-sensitive holistic admissions, majority Supreme Court Justices contribute to historic and contemporary systemic racism. One thing is clear: These decisions will negatively impact the learning environment and innovations in knowledge production that will compromise the future health services research.
Where do we go from here? How can we all advance racial equity in higher education?
First, we must clearly define what we mean by race, racism, and antiracism. The recent National Academies report on the use of race, ethnicity, and ancestry labels in genetics and genomics research said that using race as proxy for genetic variation could be “misleading, inaccurate, and harmful.” Last year’s report from the Equitable Data Working Group called for more accurate federal data, with a focus on disaggregating demographic data. Currently, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has convened an interagency working group tasked with revising federal race and ethnicity data collection standards. Regrettably, initial proposals are to combine Hispanic ethnicity and race into one question, which will erode our ability to discern racialized health inequities within Latinx communities. Just as we wouldn’t collect gender and sexuality in one question, or educational attainment and income or wealth in one question separate questions are needed for race, which has a visual component, and ethnicity, which is based on cultural background or heritage.
Second, imagine if our undergraduate and graduate degree-granting programs and scholarship/fellowship committees developed communities of practice that employ intersectionality as critical inquiry, action, and reflection. In their book, Intersectionality, Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge define intersectionality as the idea that if we are interested in understanding and eliminating inequalities, we must consider race, gender, class, disability, sexuality, etc. as analytically distinct and simultaneous social statuses and categories of experience in systems of power, inequality and privilege in a given sociohistorical context. This would mean that admissions committees depart from the premise that socioeconomic status (as measured by income, wealth, type of high school attended, zip code, parent/guardian educational attainment or occupational status in the U.S. or abroad when the applicant was 16, depending on the data source) is a not proxy for self-identified race or street race/perceived race. Similarly, Hispanic ethnicity, or any other cultural background, national origin or ancestry or color or nativity or language is not a proxy for street race/perceived race. Street race refers to race as a visual social status that is based on the social meanings assigned to a conglomeration of physical attributes, that includes but is not limited to skin color, facial features, hair texture, etc.
Third, imagine if we reconsidered the use of standardized exams like the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) in holistic admissions. The American Sociological Association (ASA) issued a statement that cites peer reviewed research showing that GRE scores should not be used in any high-stake fashion to assess scholarly promise of students.
Fourth, imagine if we scaled up mentoring and career beginnings pathway programs like Upward Bound, which targets high school students who, like me, are first in our families to have the privilege of pursuing higher education, along with ethnic studies as a lever for reducing educational and health inequalities and fostering critical thinking, compassion and healthy, loving communities. As a Black Latina, U.S.-born daughter of Dominican immigrants, Spanish is my first language. I am the first in my family to have the privilege of pursuing education beyond the second grade. As the eldest of five children, I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s and I was raised in public housing. I graduated from a de facto segregated large public high school in New York City, and I was fortunate that at the time there were equity-based pipeline programs, such as Upward Bound and the Sophie Davis Biomedical Program for high school students as upper-level STEM courses such as calculus where not offered in my high school.
As the first woman of color hired in my department and the first woman of the African diaspora tenured in the largest college at my university, I know the difference that race-sensitive affirmative action in higher education has made for me and for the future of impactful knowledge production in higher education.
Editor’s note: AcademyHealth is hosting a webinar featuring a panel of experts who will explore the impact of the recent Supreme Court ruling on considering race in admissions on the field of health services research. Happening Monday, July 31 from 12-1pm ET. Register here.