On Thursday, the Supreme Court declared affirmative action programs at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina 'unconstitutional.' The landmark ruling positions these programs as violations of the Fourteenth Amendment and federal civil rights law, thereby effectively curtailing explicit racial consideration in higher education admissions.
This pivotal verdict overturns the previous Supreme Court stance from the 2003 case of Grutter v. Bollinger. This case had sanctioned colleges to factor race into the admissions process to achieve a diverse student body. "To truly eliminate racial discrimination, we need to eradicate it in all its forms," declared Chief Justice John Roberts, penning the majority opinion. He emphasized the Equal Protection Clause's universal application, regardless of race, color, or nationality, the New York Post reported.
The affirmative action programs at Harvard and UNC first met with legal opposition in 2014, spearheaded by Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), a group founded by conservative activist Edward Blum. They argued for race-neutral alternatives for creating a diverse student body, such as focusing on socioeconomic status and abolishing preferences for alumni children and major donors.
Both universities' application processes incorporate race in various stages, from initial numerical scoring to final decision-making. Critiques argue that this approach disadvantages qualified students, predominantly those who are white and Asian, due to their ethnicity.
In his closing remarks, Chief Justice Roberts emphasized that while universities could consider how race has influenced an applicant's life, they cannot establish racially-focused regimes. He underscored that students must be evaluated based on their individual experiences and achievements, not their racial identity.
Roberts' perspective was backed by the court's conservative faction, including Justice Samuel Alito, Justice Clarence Thomas, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and Justice Neil Gorsuch. In his concurring opinion, Justice Thomas argued that "two discriminatory wrongs do not make a right," highlighting both Harvard and UNC's history of racial discrimination.
Meanwhile, the court's liberal members, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ketanji Brown Jackson, dissented in the UNC case. However, Justice Jackson, being a Harvard alumnus, recused herself from the Harvard case. She decried the majority's 'colorblind' verdict, stating that race still profoundly impacts American life experiences.
Nine states – Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Washington state – already prohibit race consideration in public college and university admissions. This decision ignited varied responses. President Biden stated that he “strongly, strongly” disagreed with the court.
“We cannot let this decision be the last word,” said Biden, who called on colleges and universities to continue to “take into account the adversity a student has overcome,” including “lack of financial means, where the student grew up and went to high school” and “particular hardships that each individual student has faced in life, including racial discrimination.”