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Supreme Court Ends Affirmative Action in College Admissions

Newsman: The high court struck down race-conscious admissions policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina.

The Supreme Court on Thursday dealt a major blow to affirmative action in higher education, striking down race-conscious admissions programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina.

In a ruling divided along ideological lines, the high court’s six-justice conservative majority found that the universities discriminated against white and Asian American applicants by using race-conscious policies that benefited applicants from underrepresented backgrounds.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion. The three liberal justices dissented.

“Eliminating racial discrimination means eliminating all of it,” Roberts wrote.

The court ruled that both programs violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution and are therefore unlawful. The vote was 6-3 in the UNC case and 6-2 in the Harvard case. The decision reversed decades of precedent upheld over the years by narrow court majorities that included Republican-appointed justices.

President Joe Biden called the decision a “severe disappointment,” adding that his administration would provide guidance about how colleges could maintain diversity without violating the ruling.

The court effectively overturned the 2003 ruling Grutter v. Bollinger, in which it said race could be considered as a factor in the admissions process because universities had a compelling interest in maintaining diverse campuses. In doing so, the court scrapped decades of precedent, including a ruling dating to 1978, that upheld a limited consideration of race in university admissions to combat historic discrimination against Black people and other minority groups.

In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts did not explicitly say the former precedents were overruled, but in a concurring opinion, conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, only the second Black justice to be appointed to the court, said the Grutter case was, “for all intents and purposes, overruled.”

Roberts wrote that both programs “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.”

The ruling exposed stark divisions among the justices, who sit on a court that is more diverse than it has ever been.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman to serve on the court, wrote in a dissenting opinion that the ruling was “truly a tragedy for us all.”

Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic justice, wrote that the court “stands in the way and rolls back decades of precedent and momentous progress.”

Sotomayor, in a sign of her displeasure, read a lengthy summary of her dissenting opinion in the courtroom.

Thomas, a long-term critic of affirmative action, wrote his own 58-page opinion, in which he called the programs in question “rudderless, race-based preferences designed to ensure a particular racial mix in the entering classes.”

Both policies “fly in the face of our colorblind Constitution and our nation’s equality ideal,” he added.

Jackson stared straight ahead while Thomas read his opinion from the bench.

The court’s decision is a major blow to the most selective universities, which say some consideration of race is vital in ensuring they have diverse student bodies.

The small number of schools that have extremely competitive admissions programs are the most affected. They have predicted that rulings against the colleges will lead to a significant drop in the enrollment of minority students and require admissions officers to experiment with new race-neutral plans to counteract the impact. The vast majority of colleges accept almost all applicants and will not be as affected.

Among the dozens of institutions that take race into account are Yale University, Brown University, Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Chicago and Dartmouth College.

Roberts left open the possibility of colleges’ considering the discussion of race in an individual student’s application, citing the example of someone who personally encountered racial discrimination.

The student “must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual — not on the basis of race,” he added.

He also noted that the ruling does not address considering race in military academies. The Biden administration had warned that a ruling curbing affirmative action would detrimentally affect the U.S. military, which depends on a “well-qualified and diverse officer corps” educated at institutions like the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, as well as civilian universities.

It is unclear what flexibility colleges will have in adopting race-neutral programs to foster diverse student bodies. Those defending affirmative action said such policies will often fail, leading to declines in Black and Hispanic enrollments. The challengers point to examples in the nine states that already ban the practice as evidence that considering race is not essential.

The ruling is likely to have repercussions far beyond higher education, including on K-12 schools, and it puts increased pressure on colleges to come up with workable race-neutral programs that would foster racial diversity. The decision could also lead to future challenges to racial diversity programs used by employers, as similar arguments could be made under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in employment.

Conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh, in a concurring opinion, said that Thursday’s ruling would apply first to those starting college in 2028 and that the decision therefore did not conflict with the 2003 ruling.

Harvard leaders issued a statement reaffirming their commitment to “the fundamental principle that deep and transformative teaching, learning and research depend upon a community comprising people of many backgrounds, perspectives and lived experiences.”

Harvard will now “determine how to preserve, consistent with the court’s new precedent, our essential values,” they added.

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