Supreme Court Divided: Outlaws Affirmative Action in College Admissions, Says Race Can’t be Used

Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions and declared forcing institutions of higher education must look for new ways to achieve diversity in student bodies by declaring race cannot be a factor. 

The court’s conservative majority effectively overturned cases that reached back 45 years by invalidating admissions plans at the University of North Carolina and Harvard, the nation’s oldest public and private colleges, respectively. 

The schools will be forced to reshape their practices on admissions, especially top schools more likely to consider applicants’ race. 

Chief Justice John Roberts said that for far too long, universities 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.”

President Joe Biden says he “strongly, strongly” disagreed with the court’s ruling, urging colleges to seek other routes to diversity rather than letting the ruling “be the last word.”

The fight over affirmative action showed the deep gulf between three justices of color who each wrote vividly and separately about race in America and where the decision could lead. 

Justice Clarence Thomas — only the nation’s second Black justice — wrote the decision “sees the universities’ admissions policies for what they are: rudderless, race-based preferences designed to ensure a particular racial mix in their entering classes.”

The court’s first Latina, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, wrote in dissent that the court’s decision “rolls back decades of precedent and momentous progress.”

In a separate dissent, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson called the decision “truly a tragedy for us all.”

The vote was 6-2 in the Harvard case and 6-3 in the North Carolina case. Jackson sat out the Harvard case because she had been a governing board member. 

President Biden quickly went public with his disdain for the ruling

President Biden promptly appeared before the cameras at the White House following the ruling and urged the nation’s colleges to “Not abandon their commitment to ensuring student bodies of diverse backgrounds and experience that reflect all of America.” He said colleges should evaluate “adversity overcome” by candidates. 

Former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump offered drastically different takes on the high court ruling. The decision marked “a great day for America. People with extraordinary ability and everything else necessary for success, including future greatness for our Country, are finally being rewarded,” wrote Trump on his Truth Social media platform.

Obama said that affirmative action “allowed generations of students like Michelle and me to prove we belonged. Now, it’s up to all of us to give young people the opportunities they deserve — and help students everywhere benefit from new perspectives.”

The affirmative action cases were brought by conservative activist Edward Blum, who also was behind an earlier challenge against the University of Texas and a case that led the court in 2013 to end the use of the key provision of the groundbreaking Voting Rights Act.

Blum founded Students for Fair Admissions, which filed lawsuits against both of the schools in 2014. The group argued the Constitution forbids the use of race in college admissions and pushed for the overturn of earlier Supreme Court decisions that ruled otherwise. 

Chief Justice Roberts wrote the only higher education institutions explicitly left out of the ruling were the U.S.’s military academies. At the same time, he suggested that national security interests could affect the legal analysis. 

Nine states already prohibit any consideration of race in admissions to their public universities and colleges. The end of affirmative action in higher education in Michigan, Washington, and California and elsewhere led to a steep dip in minority enrollment in those states’ leading public universities.

The other states are Florida, Nebraska, Oklahoma, New Hampshire, Georgia, and Arizona. 

In 2020, voters in California quickly rejected a ballot measure to bring back affirmative action. 

A poll last month by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research showed that 63% of adults in the U.S. say the court should allow colleges to consider race as part of the admissions process; however, few believe students’ race should ultimately play a significant role in decisions. A Pew Research Center survey released last week found that half of Americans disapprove of considerations of applicants’ race, while only a third approve.