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What’s left of affirmative action, explained

A discrimination case against Harvard puts affirmative action in the spotlight again — but the debate often paints an inaccurate picture of the policies.

The latest attack on affirmative action comes in the form of a lawsuit that alleges Harvard is discriminating against Asian Americans. The highly charged allegation follows a long history of conservatives casting Asians as victims of affirmative action in hopes of outlawing the policy.

But the affirmative action debate often paints an inaccurate picture of what affirmative action actually is.

Originally, it was a policy that gave people of color a boost in the admissions process as a way to undo the effects of historical discrimination.

But over the past several decades, the Supreme Court has incrementally narrowed how colleges can consider race in admissions. The Court has ruled that colleges can’t consider race to as a way to undo the effects of historical discrimination. Instead, schools can only use it to create a diverse student body.

The Supreme Court has also ruled that schools can’t have a race-based quota, where a certain number of seats are designated to applicants of color. And schools can’t just give a boost to all students of a certain race. Rather, they must consider each student holistically — and only consider race as one factor.

It’s left colleges with a tiny, vague pathway to consider race with the goal of diversity. And now conservatives are hoping this Harvard case will make it to the Supreme Court — which now has a conservative majority — and that the Court will kill affirmative action altogether.

Further confusing this debate is the question of where Asians fit into affirmative action. In this Harvard case, affirmative action opponents have tried to entangle the alleged discrimination Asians might face in the admissions process with the systemic discrimination that has kept black and Hispanic students from achieving similar success in the American education system.

Watch the video above to find out what we get wrong about the affirmative action, and how Asians might fit into the debate. For more videos, subscribe to Vox’s YouTube channel.