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Supreme Court Restricts Affirmative Action In Landmark Decision

The Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a part of affirmative action that prohibits public and private universities from using race-based considerations, saying they violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The University of North Carolina and Harvard University, the nation’s oldest public and private schools respectively, were the cases before the supreme court.

The UNC decision was split 6-3, with all conservatives in the majority. The Harvard decision was split 6-2, as Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson recused herself because she served on the school’s board. 

Chief Justice John Roberts delivered the opinion of the court, while the liberal judges dissented. 

“The student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual — not on the basis of race,” Roberts wrote. “Many universities have for too long done just the opposite. And in doing so, they have concluded, wrongly, that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned but the color of their skin. Our constitutional history does not tolerate that choice.”

The admissions programs at Harvard and UNC lack “sufficiently focused and measurable objectives warranting the use of race, unavoidably employ race in a negative manner, involve racial stereotyping, and lack meaningful end points,” Roberts said. 

The court has, “never permitted admissions programs to work in that way,” and that they will and “not do so today.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor in her dissenting opinion writes, “Given the lengthy history of state-sponsored race-based preferences in America, to say that anyone is now victimized if a college considers whether that legacy of discrimination has unequally advantaged its applicants fails to acknowledge the well documented “intergenerational transmission of inequality” that still plagues our citizenry.” 

While the decision(s) were based on the race-based practices at UNC and Harvard, this will affect all public and private universities in the United States. 

Since 1996, research shows that the number of Black and Native American students at California’s public universities fell after voters banned the use of race in admissions for the state’s school. 

An analysis conducted by Yale University in 2020, found that the 1996 decision discouraged students of color from applying to the University of California system schools. 

The analysis also shows that the ban further impacted socioeconomic inequalities of underrepresented students, by the mid-2010s, the number of unprivileged graduates earning more than $100,000 in their early careers dropped by 3%. 

In a study conducted by Liliana Garces, a legal and education policy expert at UT-Austin, found that due to bans on affirmative actions in college admissions in states like Texas, California, Washington and Florida, the average number of graduate students of color across multiple disciplines dropped by 12%. 

The study also finds that when academic institutes stopped considering race in admissions, the administrators felt as though they could not discuss issues of race and racism in decisions regarding admission to the university. 

Although race based practices are now banned from universities, Roberts added that “nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.”

In Texas, the decision will largely impact the University of Texas at Austin, the only public university in the state that still considers race as a factor for undergraduate admissions. 

“It would be deeply unfortunate if the Equal Protection Clause actually demanded this perverse,

ahistorical, and counterproductive outcome. To impose this result in that Clause’s name when it requires no such thing, and to thereby obstruct our collective progress toward the full realization of the Clause’s promise, is truly a tragedy for us all,” Jackson wrote in her dissent. 

Ever since affirmative action was first introduced after the Civil Rights movement as a way to balance the racial imbalances in education and the workforce born from a segregated society, the American public and the Supreme Court have debated the need for race-based practices in the U.S. 

For almost 60 years, the highest court in the land has debated and weighed on the legality of the policy and narrowed its scope. And in the past 20 years, the Supreme Court upheld race-conscious college admissions programs, as recently as 2016. 

During arguments in late October, all six conservative justices conveyed their doubts about the practice, which has been upheld by the supreme court decisions tracking back to 1978.  

In Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina, the case against UNC,  SFFA said the university’s admissions policies gave preference to Black, Native American students over White and Asian applicants, thus discriminating on the basis of race. 

In Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, the case against Harvard, SFFA accused the university of discriminating against Asian American students as they apply subjective standard tests to limit the number of applicants accepted. 

The programs at both UNC and Harvard were upheld by lower courts, dismissing claims that the schools discriminated against white and Asian-American students.

Today’s decision, “will serve only to highlight the court’s own impotence in the face of an America whose cries for equality resound,” Sotomayor wrote, closing her dissent with quote from Martin Luther King, “‘the arc of the moral universe’ will bend toward racial justice despite the Court’s efforts today to impede its progress.” 

Atirikta Kumar
Atirikta Kumar
Atirikta Kumar (@AtiriktaKumar) is pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Political Science at the University of Houston. Atirikta is passionate about writing about the criminal justice system and issues in order to inform the public about their communities and politics. She also writes for her college newspaper, The Cougar.


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