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Indy Q&A: Harvard student from Vegas on affirmative action ruling that could reshape school

Naoka Foreman
Naoka Foreman
John Cooke poses for a portrait at his alma mater Rancho High School in Las Vegas on Monday, July 3, 2023. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent).

John Cooke, 19, graduated from the aviation magnet program at Rancho High School in Las Vegas and said he chose to go to Harvard University because “it had a very strong Black community presence on campus.” 

Cooke said since October 2022, students at Harvard have been highly engaged in the Supreme Court case brought forward by Students for Fair Admissions, which declares that affirmative action is a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Merriam-Webster defines affirmative action as “the use of policies, legislation, programs, and procedures to improve the educational or employment opportunities of members of certain demographic groups” including minorities, women and seniors, “as a remedy to the effects of long-standing discrimination against such groups.”

Last week’s Supreme Court ruling gutted the use of affirmative action at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina (UNC) and declared that an applicant’s race cannot be considered as an admissions factor. It comes nearly 60 years after the Civil Rights movement and was preceded by state bans of affirmative action in places such as Arizona, Michigan, Washington, Florida and California.

“Today, the court holds that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment does not tolerate this practice. I write to emphasize that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not either, ” wrote Justice Neil M. Gorsuch in his concurrence regarding the use of affirmative action in admissions processes.

Affirmative action policies were passed starting in 1961 after decades of Black codes, Jim Crow segregation and discrimination against women, to increase the number of minority and female students in higher education and female and minority workers. The Wall Street Journal found that when affirmative action was removed from California college admissions procedures in 1998, Black and Latino students experienced a “downward shift” in the years that followed and attended less selective schools, made less wages over their lifetimes, and were less likely to join industries such as science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), or attend graduate school.

According to Nevada education administrators, incoming freshmen – especially high-achieving Black students – will likely feel the most ramifications from the Supreme Court's ruling because they have been historically discriminated against in the admissions processes of elite universities. 

Cooke, now a sophomore at the home of the pilgrims who aspires to be a lawyer, said the ruling has hurt many students he knows, but he believes minority students will continue to thrive despite the odds. He shared his reflections on the decision and how many Black students on campus are reacting to the ruling in an interview with The Nevada Independent.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Explanations of certain terms or ideas have been added in italics as needed.

What have been some of the responses from students since the Supreme Court’s ruling?

So everybody kind of feels hurt by this case, by the decision in this case. The reason why is because we look at all of these systemic barriers that have existed for Black students, dating back decades, dating back centuries into enslavement. Harvard as a college was established in 1636. And over time, Harvard was able to establish itself as the center of learning but completely without minority voices, especially Black voices that have been present for a very long period of American history. 

[Richard Theodore Greener was the first Black graduate from Harvard University in 1870. According to the Harvard Crimson Newspaper, he was the second Black student admitted by the school’s president as part of an “experiment in the education of Black students” and to modernize the university.]

We all see affirmative action as a way to kind of right that societal wrong, to make it so that these institutions, that are credited with creating some of society's best leaders – the people who are going to be leading our society into the future – look like the country that they are supposed to be representing. And that's how we see affirmative action.

Why are students not in agreement with the Supreme Court’s ruling?

Historically speaking, we weren't allowed to be at Harvard. And now we're kind of breaking this barrier, and we're seen as this shiny object that made it through despite all of our circumstances. And we want to be valued just as much as the next person, just as much as that legacy student whose parents and grandparents went to Harvard, dating back generations. That's what we are trying to achieve. And that’s what this ruling kind of strikes at the heart of, in our opinion.

Are you speaking about the student government?

I'm speaking kind of in a collective manner about how Black students on campus are feeling about this ruling.

What has some of the organizing looked like on campus?

Dating back to when this case was originally argued, which was last year, student groups on campus were tasked with writing briefs to the Supreme Court. Writing amicus briefs was basically our outside opinions that aren't the counsel involved in the case, to provide more perspective on the case. Groups like the Black Student Association and other groups throughout Harvard College, including the Asian American Students Association, wrote briefs to the Supreme Court on this issue.

We have been organizing around this issue for months and organizing to defend diversity on our campuses for months.

Are students still organizing?

We have students at the Supreme Court, probably as we speak, organizing around this. I know that there's demonstrations being held in Boston at Harvard's campus in the coming weeks. So the fight is going to continue, and Harvard students are really passionate about Harvard students from all minority groups, not just Black students. The organizing is definitely going to continue.

Are there any student groups that are organizing against what you’re doing? Saying to get rid of affirmative action or calling it racist?

No, not to my knowledge, actually. The only ones I can imagine would be in favor of this ruling would be conservative groups on campus.

You haven't seen or heard of any conservative groups organizing and speaking out about this case at all?


So it sounds like the student body is not really calling for this change. Would you agree with that? 

Yes. The plaintiffs are this group called Students for Fair Admissions, a group of majority white and majority Asian students who were rejected from schools such as Harvard and the University of North Carolina, which is also one of the schools directly mentioned in the lawsuit, who say that their race was a major factor in their rejection. They claimed that due to affirmative action and due to race-conscious admissions, they couldn't get into a school that they purportedly deserve to be admitted to.

If we look at who is litigating the case, there's a litigator by the name of Ed Blum behind a lot of the case, and this litigator’s role for the past 30 years has involved numerous decisions which stand to lower Black citizens’ standing in society. 

If you look at cases that he's been involved in, such as the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder case that gutted the Voting Rights Act, and that's what it intended to do, he was behind that as well. He brought another case, Fisher v. University of Texas in 2016, in which the Supreme Court actually upheld race-conscious admissions just seven years ago.

[Edward Blum is a conservative legal strategist and is the president of Students for Fair Admissions. According to the New York Times, Blum has mobilized more than two dozen lawsuits to eradicate affirmative action policies and voting rights laws across the country.]

What are your thoughts about how quickly these laws were able to change or be upheld in 2016 to be reversed for the exact clause the next few years? 

When the founders established the Supreme Court, they decided that in order to avoid the Supreme Court from becoming a partisan body, a lifetime appointment was necessary so that presidents couldn't go in and appoint Supreme Court justices for a partisan term, in order to make partisan decisions. And that was great back in the 1700s. But now we see a clearly partisan Supreme Court making clearly partisan decisions. 

It's gotten to a point where Supreme Court justices will wait to retire until a president of their party is in office so that their seat can be held by another person of the same party – based on ideology – not on the letter of the law. And I think that's one of the biggest dangers that the Supreme Court and our entire governmental system faces as we head into the future. 

It's no secret that the conservative party, or the Republican Party in this case, is losing popularity amongst the American people. It's not the most popular ideology. However, it's able to maintain a 6-3 majority on the court that decides all of our constitutional laws. I think that's inherently flawed. I think there should be some level of reform on the Supreme Court. I'm not sure what that looks like. I'm not sure if that looks like adding justices to reflect the current population in our modern viewpoints today. 

I'm not sure if that looks like instilling term limits for Supreme Court justices, but I just know that this current court and these current laws cannot stand and it's doing a disservice to the American people.

What does the organizing efforts look like at Rancho High School?

I'm not 100 percent sure. I know that Rancho High School has a Black Student Union and that students at Rancho will be organizing on this issue. I do know that students are looking to get into Harvard University and Ivy League schools.

How has it been to find community on Harvard’s campus?

A big reason why I chose Harvard from other schools that I applied to was because it had a very strong Black community presence on campus. One example of that is the Harvard Black Men's Forum, which is a space for Black men on campus to develop connections, develop friendships, and to just kind of navigate this historically white and historically discriminatory space that is Harvard as Black men on campus.

There's many groups that I was able to identify with, and that I was able to find community in when I got to school. So that was a huge selling point at Harvard and I think that's something that Harvard does really well and leads the Ivy League … is the Black community [there] and the experiences that you'll get as a minority student there.

What do you think the consequences will be from the ruling at Harvard when you are returning this fall?

I think that the principles of diversity will still be upheld. I think that for the next year's admission cycle there might be some changes in demographics, but the Supreme Court noticeably left out provisions against including race, including your racial experience in things like your admissions essay and your interview, which are two major parts of the application package.

So students can still get their race across. Students can still get their experiences across. And I think that exceptional students will still be recognized from different races across this country. 

The next few classes may be more white. There may be more legacy students admitted over Black students, over low-income students, which in my opinion, is a shame. But over time, I believe that students will step up to the challenge and I believe that the demographics of Harvard will continue to be diverse, and students will continue to be able to find their place on campus.

Are you worried about the ruling or that it will have negative ramifications?

I can't say that I'm not worried about the ruling because legacy students have an inherent advantage of getting into Harvard University. And admissions officers look at that and will decide to admit you based on your parents’ or grandparents’ status. So they get to keep their advantages, but minority students don't get to keep their advantages. So there will be more legacy students that are admitted. 

So I am worried about the ramifications of the decision. But I don't doubt that outstanding students from both groups will still continue to be recognized and continue to be admitted.

[Less than a week following the Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action, civil rights lawyers introduced a lawsuit against Harvard University, challenging legacy admissions.]


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