Supreme Court rejects affirmative action, abolishing race-based college admissions

By komal
13 Min Read

On Thursday, the Supreme Court declared that the race-based admissions procedures of Harvard University and the University of North Carolina are unconstitutional, effectively ending affirmative action on college campuses across the country.

In the case involving the University of North Carolina, the court decided by a vote of 6-3 along ideological lines, whereas in the Harvard case, the court decided by a vote of 6-2 (with Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson recusing herself). The majority judgment was written by Chief Justice John Roberts and joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett. From the bench, Thomas expressed agreement with the majority. It was the first instance this term that a dissenting justice read their dissent orally, and it was read by Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Neither the admissions policies of Harvard nor those of the University of North Carolina can be squared with the requirements of the Equal Protection Clause, Roberts said. “Neither initiative has clear enough goals to justify its use of race, and its use of race is always negative and involves racial stereotyping. We have never tolerated such tactics in admissions policies, and we certainly won’t start now.

However, according to what Roberts said, colleges and institutions still have the right to take into account “an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.” Due to their “potentially distinct interests,” military academies are essentially excluded from the decision.

The chief justice came to the conclusion that students should be judged “as an individual — not on the basis of race.”

Unfortunately, “many universities have for too long done just the opposite,” Roberts added. And in doing so, they have incorrectly determined that skin color is more important than overcoming adversity, developing one’s talents, and growing as a person. That’s not a decision that’s allowed by our constitutional past.

Sotomayor argued strongly against the majority conclusion, calling it “not grounded in law or fact and contravenes the vision of equality embodied in the Fourteenth Amendment.”

This Court is a roadblock today, undoing decades of precedent and significant progress. It argues that colleges may no longer exploit racial considerations in a narrow sense to get these important outcomes,” she said. To put it another way, “in so holding, the Court cements a superficial rule of colorblindness as a constitutional principle in an endemically segregated society where race has always mattered and continues to matter.”

Together with Justice Elena Kagan and Justice Robert Jackson, Sotomayor argued that the court’s decision “subverts the constitutional guarantee of equal protection by further entrenching racial inequality in education, the very foundation of our democratic government and pluralistic society.”

Jackson, the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court, criticized the court’s decision in a separate dissent regarding the University of North Carolina case, saying that the majority “surges to vindicate equality, but Don Quixote style — pitifully perceiving itself as the sole vanguard of legal high ground when, in reality, its perspective is not constitutionally compelled.”

She added, “Simply put, the race-blind admissions stance the Court mandates from this day forward is unmoored from critical real-life circumstances.” As a result of the Court’s interference, “a dismally misinformed sociological experiment is launched, effectively arresting the noble generational project that America’s universities are attempting.”

Considering precedents set by the Supreme Court

While Chief Justice John Roberts’ majority opinion did not directly overturn the Supreme Court’s precedent allowing schools to consider race in admissions decisions (in a 2003 case known as Grutter v. Bollinger), Associate Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in his concurring opinion that the 2003 decision is “for all intents and purposes, overruled,” and Justice Sonia Sotomayor accused the conservative majority of “overruling decades of precedent.”

The three judges nominated by former president Trump have had a significant influence on the court, and this verdict is the latest example of the conservative majority of the Supreme Court overturning decades of precedent on an issue that has molded American society.

The Supreme Court’s last term saw the overturning of Roe v. Wade, a 1973 decision that established a woman’s right to an abortion under the Constitution. This decision heightened fears that other long-standing decisions, such as those upholding the constitutionality of race-conscious admissions policies, may be overturned.

The widespread belief that affirmative action would crumble under the scrutiny of the Supreme Court has been proven correct. Universities have cautioned that eliminating race-conscious admissions procedures will lead to a major decline in the presence of Black and Hispanic students, particularly at prestigious institutions, which will be hit hardest by the decision.

According to Harvard’s court papers, more than 40% of colleges and 60% of prestigious institutions consider race to some degree when making admissions choices. The Biden administration also argues that the educational benefits of diversity warrant limited consideration of race in admissions, which has been depended on by institutions like the service academies, the U.S. military, and the federal government.

In remarks from the White House, Vice President Biden criticized the court’s rejection of affirmative action in higher education and said that racial diversity strengthens both institutions of higher learning and the country as a whole.

“We cannot let this decision be the last word,” he said. The court’s ruling won’t alter America’s core values, though. The United States of America is a concept, a one-of-a-kind notion. It’s a concept built on the ideals of inclusion and equality for all people. We’ve never quite measured up, but we also haven’t given up. We are not going to back down now.

A reporter asked Vice President Biden if the Supreme Court is “rogue,” and he said, “This is not a normal court.”

How did these cases reach the Supreme Court, and what is affirmative action?

Affirmative action refers to measures used by universities and businesses to recruit a more racially diverse student population and workforce. Since its inception in the 1960s to combat racism, the idea has been met with criticism from some who believe it perpetuates discrimination towards people of other races. Affirmative action advocates in higher education think these policies are necessary to increase diversity and ensure underrepresented groups have equitable access to schools, and they argue that race should be addressed as part of a “holistic” review of candidates.

A total of nine states (Arizona, California, Florida, Idaho, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Washington) have outlawed affirmative action in their state-funded higher education institutions.

This term, the oldest private university, Harvard, and the oldest public university, the University of North Carolina, were both involved in issues before the court. The conservative activist Ed Blum, who has spent years fighting to eliminate racial preferences in American society, created Students for Fair Admissions in November 2014 and filed both lawsuits under his name.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act forbids racial discrimination in any program or activity that gets federal funding; in the Harvard case, the group alleged the university’s race-conscious admissions criteria discriminated against Asian-American candidates. Students for Fair Admissions claimed that Harvard discriminates against Asian-American candidates by scoring them worse on personality qualities than students of other races.

Students for Fair Admissions claimed that UNC was breaching the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment by failing to consider race-neutral options to increase its student body’s racial diversity.

Both schools said they did not have a bias towards Asian Americans applying to their schools.

Each school’s policy was upheld by lower courts after it was determined that race was just one factor among many in the schools’ holistic processes and that the policies were consistent with the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Grutter, which ruled that the Constitution permits the narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions.

Sandra Day O’Connor, writing for the majority in Grutter, predicted that “25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary.” Questions about the anticipated 2028 timeframe for when race wouldn’t need to be considered in college admissions were raised during oral arguments in the Harvard and University of North Carolina cases.

Neither Harvard nor the University of North Carolina gave the court any indication that their racial preferences in admissions were temporary, as Roberts stated for the majority.

“In short,” he wrote, “there is no reason to believe that respondents — even acting in good faith — will comply with the Equal Protection Clause any time soon.”

The Supreme Court previously heard arguments on the legality of race-conscious admissions processes in 2016, when Blum and others challenged the rules at the University of Texas at Austin. To guarantee a diverse student body, the court ruled again along racial lines in that instance.

However, the current make-up of the court is vastly different from that time, with only Sotomayor surviving from the majority seven years ago. (Kagan disqualified herself from the proceedings.)

In January of 2022, the Supreme Court will once again weigh in on the issue of affirmative action. After Jackson joined the court and recused herself from the Harvard issue, the formerly merged Harvard and University of North Carolina matters were separated.

Harvard and North Carolina’s responses to the Supreme Court’s decision

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has issued a statement promising to implement the court’s verdict.

“Carolina continues to make an affordable, high-quality education accessible to the people of North Carolina and beyond,” he said. “Carolina remains firmly committed to bringing together talented students with different perspectives and life experiences.”

Harvard’s administration has reaffirmed its dedication to student diversity, calling it “essential to the academic experience.”

Leaders of the university wrote to the Harvard community, “For nearly a decade, Harvard has vigorously defended an admissions system that, as two federal courts ruled, fully complied with longstanding precedent.” In light of the new precedent set by the Supreme Court, “in the weeks and months ahead, drawing on the talent and expertise of our Harvard community, we will determine how to preserve, consistent with the Court’s new precedent, our essential values.”

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