When Claims Collide: Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and the Meaning of Discrimination

36 Pages Posted: 31 May 2023 Last revised: 2 Jun 2023

See all articles by Cara McClellan

Cara McClellan

University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School

Date Written: May 26, 2023


This term, the Supreme Court will decide Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College (SFFA v. Harvard), a challenge to Harvard College’s race-conscious admissions program. While litigation challenging the use of race in higher education admissions spans over five decades, previous attacks on race-conscious admissions systems were brought by white plaintiffs alleging “reverse discrimination” based on the theory that a university discriminated against them by assigning a plus factor to underrepresented minority applicants. SFFA v. Harvard is distinct from these cases because the plaintiff organization, SFFA, brought a claim alleging that Harvard engages in intentional discrimination by penalizing Asian American applicants despite their status as people of color. SFFA alleges that Asian American applicants are discriminated against in the college admissions process because Harvard undervalues standardized test scores and other “objective” factors on which Asian American students in the aggregate outperform other applicants. Yet, at the same time that a Massachusetts district court considered SFFA’s claims, on the other side of the country, a coalition of students of color, including Asian American students, brought Smith v. Regents of University of California, a lawsuit arguing that standardized test scores were racially biased against them and that reliance on standardized test scores was itself discriminatory. The claims in these cases provide an entry point for considering what I call “mirror” claims of discrimination, in which allegations of discrimination are brought challenging both sides of an issue or policy decision, in this case the use of standardized test scores in the college admissions process. This Article argues that without a contextual analysis that is grounded in white supremacy, discrimination claims lose their meaning and could be actionable on competing sides of many issues and policy decisions. Instead, courts have a duty to provide guidance about when liability exists by considering how racial disparities in power and resources operate in the context of a particular claim. First, I argue that one way of distinguishing between what appear to be mirror discrimination claims is to ask whether there is a strong basis in evidence to believe that a policy or decision would entail liability for disparate impact discrimination. If so, avoiding disparate impact liability provides a defense against a claim of intentional discrimination and a basis for distinguishing the reverse action. Next, I consider how to analyze mirror claims that involve intragroup variation within a protected group, such as in the Smith and SFFA cases where there are contested arguments about how different subgroups of Asian American applicants are impacted. I argue that for an intentional discrimination claim to succeed, it should address, rather than ignore, how intragroup differences contribute to experiences of subordination. Finally, I argue that, as Harvard students testified, diversity within diversity can challenge stereotyping and essentialism and provide a pathway to combat subordination.

Keywords: Supreme Court, SFFA v. Harvard, white supremacy, reverse discrimination, intersectionality, discrimination, civil rights, colorblind, education, race-conscious, admissions program, Harvard College, stereotyping, Smith v. Regents of University of California, desegregation, Asian America

Suggested Citation

McClellan, Cara, When Claims Collide: Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and the Meaning of Discrimination (May 26, 2023). U of Penn Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 23-20, Loyola University Chicago Law Journal, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4465275

Cara McClellan (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School ( email )

3501 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States

HOME PAGE: http://https://www.law.upenn.edu/faculty/caralm

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