Supreme Court Effectively Ends Race-Based Affirmative Action

On Thursday, June 29th, The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) delivered a historic decision in cases regarding Harvard University and The University of North Carolina to effectively end “affirmative action” regarding race for college admissions.

How Did We Get Here?

Race-based “affirmative action” as a practice in college admissions began during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s as an extension of policies implemented by companies in response to executive orders by Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon that advocated for equality in hiring practices.

Colleges soon began to factor race into their consideration of students, and in 1969 several universities nationwide admitted more than twice as many Black students as they had in any previous year.

Of course, challenges to the new practice arrived quickly. In 1978, in the landmark case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the Court upheld that colleges could consider race in admissions but could not use specific quotas for racial minorities. Since then, several challenges to race-based affirmative action have been made, including one in 2003 that led to the Grutter v. Bollinger case in which the Court upheld race consideration as long as other factors were also considered. Until now, none of the challenges have successfully overturned the 1978 and 2003 decisions.

What Are These Cases?

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The decision delivered Thursday comes from two cases in which the non-profit group Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) argued that universities use race to discriminate against White and Asian students.

In the Harvard case, SFFA alleges the university discriminates specifically against Asians in a way that replicates the historical quotas Regents of the University of California v. Bakke outlawed. In the University of North Carolina case, SFFA argues the school uses race to unfairly benefit underrepresented groups like Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous American students, thereby discriminating against Asian and White students.

What Does The Decision Say?

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The majority opinion authored by Chief Justice John Roberts on the cases involving Harvard University and The University of North Carolina stated: “The Court has permitted race-based college admissions only within the confines of narrow restrictions: such admissions programs must comply with strict scrutiny, may never use race as a stereotype or negative, and must—at some point—end. Respondents’ admissions systems fail each of these criteria and must therefore be invalidated under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

Roberts continued, broadening his assessment of race-based affirmative action in the United States, arguing, “Many universities have for too long wrongly concluded that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned, but the color of their skin. This Nation’s constitutional history does not tolerate that choice.”

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Fierce Dissent

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In her dissenting opinion Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman to sit on the Supreme Court, aimed at the conservative judges who decided against race consideration in admissions, stating, “With let-them-eat-cake obliviousness, today, the majority pulls the ripcord and announces “colorblindness for all” by legal fiat. But deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life.”

She argued, “Although formal racelinked legal barriers are gone, race still matters to the lived experiences of all Americans in innumerable ways, and today’s ruling makes things worse, not better…And, ultimately, ignoring race just makes it matter more.”

In her final statement on the case, she called the decision “truly a tragedy for us all.”

What Does the Decision Mean?

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The impacts of the case will not be felt or seen until admissions begin to roll out for the 2024 academic year beginning next September, but experts say that we will undoubtedly see a significant impact.

Researchers at Forbes expect to see “A drop in Black, Hispanic, and Native enrollment.” Vice president for Education Policy and knowledge management at think tank New America argues in Vox that “Black and Hispanic students in particular have historically been denied an equal opportunity to earn valuable college degrees. If history is a guide, SFFA v. Harvard will immediately make that problem worse.”

Of course, we won’t know how the decision will impact college admissions until next year. But the most knowledgeable people are not expecting anything good.