The US Supreme Court has delivered a major blow to affirmative action in American higher education. In a 6-3 decision, the court ruled that race-conscious admissions policies at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The ruling is expected to have far-reaching implications for the diversity and inclusivity of American colleges and universities, especially at the most selective and prestigious ones.
Affirmative action is a term that refers to policies that aim to increase the representation of historically marginalized groups in education, employment, and other sectors of society. In the context of higher education, affirmative action means that colleges and universities can consider race as one of many factors in their admissions decisions in order to create a more diverse and equitable student body.
The court’s decision was based on two lawsuits filed by conservative groups that accused Harvard and UNC of discriminating against white and Asian American applicants. The plaintiffs argued that the schools used racial quotas and preferences that unfairly disadvantaged them. The schools denied the allegations and defended their policies as necessary to achieve the educational benefits of diversity.
The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, stated that “the use of race in admissions is inherently suspect and must be subjected to the most rigorous scrutiny.” The opinion claimed that Harvard and UNC failed to demonstrate that their policies were narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling interest in diversity, and that they did not consider race-neutral alternatives. The opinion also suggested that diversity is not a compelling interest in itself but only a means to achieve other educational goals, such as academic excellence, civic engagement, and social mobility.
The dissenting opinion, written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, argued that the majority’s decision “turns a blind eye to the reality of race in America and the persistent inequality that plagues our society.” The opinion asserted that affirmative action is a necessary and constitutional tool to address the legacy of racism and discrimination that has excluded Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people from educational opportunities. The opinion also highlighted the evidence that Harvard and UNC’s policies positively impacted the academic performance, campus climate, and career outcomes of students from all backgrounds.
The court’s ruling is likely to significantly impact the racial composition of American higher education. According to a report by The Century Foundation, affirmative action increases the enrollment of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students at selective colleges by 23%, 25%, and 139%, respectively. Without affirmative action, these students would face greater barriers to accessing elite institutions, which white and wealthy students already dominate. As a result, the ruling could exacerbate racial inequality in education and society at large.
The ruling also raises questions about the future of affirmative action in other domains, such as employment, contracting, and health care. While the court did not explicitly ban affirmative action in all contexts, it set a high bar for its justification and implementation. This could invite more legal challenges from opponents of affirmative action, who seek to dismantle it altogether.
Affirmative action has been a contentious issue in American politics for decades. Supporters view it as a vital mechanism to promote diversity, equity, and justice. Opponents view it as a form of reverse discrimination that violates meritocracy and individual rights. The court’s decision is unlikely to resolve this debate but rather intensify it.