US Supreme Court Strikes Down Affirmative Action in College Admissions

 US Supreme Court Strikes Down Affirmative Action in College Admissions
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Ken Bredemeier

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday decisively struck down the use of affirmative action in college admissions, ruling that consideration of a student’s race to help decide who is admitted to the halls of higher learning was unconstitutional.

In a 6-3 ruling, the court’s conservative majority specifically overturned admission plans at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, the country’s oldest private and public colleges, respectively.

The high court’s decision will force colleges and universities across the United States to look for new ways to achieve diverse student enrollment without considering race, such as looking more closely at the economic background of prospective students’ families and the nature of the communities where they grew up.

Writing for the court’s majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said that for 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.”

Hundreds of schools have for decades utilized affirmative action programs to one degree or another to boost the admissions of racial minorities at places where whites only had dominated. U.S. businesses and government agencies have also utilized affirmative action plans, although Thursday’s ruling dealt only with admission to colleges.

In a dissent, one of the court’s liberals, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, said the decision “rolls back decades of precedent and momentous progress.” In a separate dissent, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson — the court’s first Black female justice — called the decision “truly a tragedy for us all.”

U.S. President Joe Biden said, “I strongly, strongly disagree with the court’s decision. I believe our colleges are stronger when they are racially diverse.”

Much like its decision a year ago overturning the national right to abortion, the court was overturning its previous rulings.

The Supreme Court had twice upheld race-conscious college admissions programs in the past 20 years, including as recently as 2016.

But former President Donald Trump’s appointment of three conservative jurists to the Supreme Court tipped the balance against affirmative action.

The ruling was not unexpected. All six conservative justices expressed concerns about the practice at arguments last October, even though lower courts had upheld the affirmative action programs at both Harvard and UNC, rejecting claims that the schools discriminated against white and Asian-American applicants.

Trump, the leading Republican presidential candidate ahead of the 2024 election, called the decision “a great day for America.”

In a short address from the White House, President Biden said “We cannot let this decision be the last word,” adding that “discrimination still exists in America. We need a higher education system that works for everyone.”

Consistent with the ruling moving forward, Biden called on universities to give greater consideration to other aspects of the background of applicants, including the financial wherewithal of the student or their family, where a student grew up and went to high school and the personal experiences of hardship or discrimination, including racial discrimination, that a student may have faced.

Many schools, in the expectation that the court’s conservative majority would block the use of affirmative action, say they already are giving greater weight to Biden’s suggested considerations in making admission decisions, along with factoring in test scores, high school grade point averages, and application essays.

Other reaction to the court decision also broke down along predictable ideological lines, with Democratic lawmakers denouncing the decision and Republicans applauding it.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said, “The Supreme Court ruling has put a giant roadblock in our country’s march toward racial justice.”

He added, “The consequences of this decision will be felt immediately and across the country, as students of color will face an admission cycle next year with fewer opportunities to attend the same colleges and universities as their parents and older siblings. These negative consequences could continue for generations, as the historic harms of exclusion and discrimination in education and society are exacerbated.”

Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate minority leader, characterized the ruling as “a long overdue step toward ensuring equal protection under the law. For decades, the court turned a blind eye as higher education prioritized illegal social engineering over merit.”

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