Supreme Court in the spring. Photo credit: Architect on the Capital Flickr

Supreme Court ruling ends affirmative action for college admissions

3 mins read

The conservative-majority Supreme Court continues to deliver decisions that dismantle key legal protections against underrepresented citizens.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court issued a blow to college admissions programs using affirmative action. The decision effectively removes affirmative action policies in college admittance. The latest 6-3 decision came when the majority rule struck down affirmative action in admissions at colleges, terminating “race-conscious college admissions policies.”

Based on lawsuits against Harvard and the University of North Carolina by the Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) organization, the complaint alleged that universities’ race-based admissions had “racially and ethnically discriminatory policies and procedures” that were “disparate in its treatment of high-achieving Asian-American and white applicants.” The lawsuit argued that Asian-American and white applicants were passed over for “underrepresented minority applicants with inferior academic credentials.”

Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion. In it, he stated that the law did allow universities to operate race-based admissions that were “sufficiently measurable,” but the  “admissions systems—however well intentioned and implemented in good faith” failed to “comply with strict scrutiny,” a process that never used “race as a stereotype or negative.”

One document in the case, reported by the New Yorker columnist, Jeannie Suk Gersen, said that formerly sealed documents in the Harvard lawsuit revealed a Department of Education official at the Office for Civil Rights who was leading an investigation on Harvard Admissions in the 1980s, made “anti-Asian remarks” in a correspondence to the then school’s dean of admissions.

But was that enough to remove affirmative action in admissions? Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who wrote the dissenting opinion said the Court “stands in the way and rolls back decades of precedent and momentous progress” all the while cementing “a superficial rule of colorblindness as a constitutional principle in an endemically segregated society where race has always mattered and continues to matter.” 

Justice Sotomayor further explains that when the United States was founded, it was a “new experiment in a republican” that sought a democratic structure, but within “the profitable institution that was slavery, which the original Constitution protected.”

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At the heart of the legal dispute was whether the Fourteenth Amendment in the Constitution bore enough protection against racism and discriminatory practices, rather than create programs that further offered legal safeguards. The landmark legislation was passed to ensure that all persons “born or naturalized in the United States,” including formerly enslaved people, provided all citizens with “equal protection under the laws.”

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a concurring opinion for the majority decision. In it, he stated that he wanted to offer an “originalist defense of the colorblind Constitution.” From his purview, “all forms of discrimination based on race—including so-called affirmative action—are prohibited under the Constitution.”

Justice Thomas has come under a wave of scrutiny. As the second Black Supreme Court justice after Thurgood Marshall, he has been a benefactor of affirmative action who rose in his career due to programs put into place to ensure fair and equitable admissions and hiring. Michael Eric Dyson, a distinguished university professor at Vanderbilt University, offered a searing opinion in a recent post. “This is the face of a man who climbed the ladder of affirmative action to shi present perch of power only to help destroy the very ladder on which he ascended. This is not only the market of deep ingratitude [and] disavowal of history, but a withering betrayal of justice [and] democracy.”

Offering another dissenting opinion, Justice Ketanji Jackson argued, “Our country has never been colorblind.” The Justice further, “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.”

The most newly minted Justice, and the first African American woman on the Supreme Court added that after the Constitution was crafted, when abolitionists pointed out that slavery contradicted the founding framework in the constitution, “eleven States chose slavery.” Rather than deal with the “dissonance” between the founding principles in the Constitution following the dissolution of slavery, an opportunity to “right historical wrongs [that] should have been clear beyond cavil—opponents insisted that vindicating equality in this manner slighted White Americans.”

While the decision is fresh in the political discourse of America, it is an expected move by a majority-conservative supreme court that has been reversing important legal protections. Recently, the Court dismantled abortion rights in overturning the 1973 Roe V. Wade decision.

Now the question is: What are institutions and citizens going to do with this new legislation?

While this is a blow to pursuits of parity in education, the Supreme Court’s conservative roll-over continues. This week, the country awaits the decision on student loans. The fate of the Biden administration’s debt forgiveness plan is at the center of the decision. In August 2022, President Biden issued a three-part debt relief program for student loans borrowers. In it, the program provided up to $20,000 in debt cancellation.

The debt relief plan was to help middle-class borrowers fold back into their monthly payments, often whopping loan payments. Plus, research showed that borrowers of color reported the most difficulty in making payments. On top of that, Black student loan borrowers have the highest loan default in the U.S.

Kaia Shivers covers news, features and the diaspora.

Soon after the announcement, six Republican-led states challenged the program. Subsequently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit unanimously blocked the government from canceling debts. The Biden Administration challenged the ruling, which is now in the hands of the Supreme Court. The Court goes on summer recess this Friday, which the decision is expected to be released, absent of extreme circumstances.

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