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Supreme Court limits use of race in college admissions decisions

Decision finds programs violated the Constitution because they effectively discriminated against applicants whose race was not preferred

Protesters gathered in October in front of the Supreme Court as the justices heard oral arguments on affirmative action cases involving Harvard and University of North Carolina admissions.
Protesters gathered in October in front of the Supreme Court as the justices heard oral arguments on affirmative action cases involving Harvard and University of North Carolina admissions. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Supreme Court on Thursday restricted how colleges can use race in admissions decisions, in a landmark ruling that struck down the affirmative action programs at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina.

The opinion from Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., joined by the court’s five other Republican appointees, upends decades of Supreme Court precedent that had allowed institutions of higher education to consider the race of applicants as one part of decisions about whether to admit them.

The decision reignited discussions about race and equality in Congress and among presidential candidates, and could signal a change in the court’s approach to the treatment of race in public institutions more broadly.

The majority found that the admissions programs at the universities violated the 14th Amendment of the Constitution because they effectively discriminated against those whose race was not preferred for admission, such as students of Asian descent.

“College admissions are zero-sum. A benefit provided to some applicants but not to others necessarily advantages the former group at the expense of the latter,” Roberts wrote.

The decision said universities could still use an applicant’s discussion of how race affected their life when deciding whether to admit them.

Roberts wrote that “the student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual — not on the basis of race,” during a college admissions process.

A concurring opinion from Justice Neil M. Gorsuch said the logic should similarly apply to the Civil Rights Act, which governs employment law, access to public accommodations and voting. He drew attention to an opinion he wrote in the court’s 2020 decision in Bostock v. Clayton County that prohibited LGBT discrimination in the workplace.

In a sign of the sharp ideological division in the high-profile case, Justice Clarence Thomas read a portion of his concurring opinion from the bench, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor read a portion of her dissent, which was joined by Justice Elena Kagan.

Sotomayor wrote that the majority opinion would impose a “superficial rule of colorblindness” in a country where race still matters and racial discrimination still exists.

“By ending race-conscious college admissions, this Court closes the door of opportunity that the Court’s precedents helped open to young students of every race,” Sotomayor wrote.

Policies challenged

Attorneys arguing for Students For Fair Admissions, the groups that launched the cases, argued that the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which desegregated schools, meant universities could not use race in their admissions.

The group challenged the admissions policies at both universities in district court in 2014. A federal judge and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit ruled in Harvard’s favor. Separately, a district judge sided with UNC.

The universities had leaned on the court’s precedent to allow race as one factor in a student’s admission and argued that they had an interest in fostering a diverse campus with students of a variety of backgrounds. Roberts criticized that logic, noting that race alone did not necessarily make a student’s viewpoint unique.

“The entire point of the Equal Protection Clause is that treating someone differently because of their skin color is not like treating them differently because they are from a city or from a suburb, or because they play the violin poorly or well,” Roberts wrote.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson recused herself from the Harvard case, which she had promised to do during her confirmation process last year, because she had served on a board for the university while the case was pending.

Jackson filed a dissenting opinion in the UNC case, arguing that the decision stopped “our collective progress toward the full realization” of the 14th Amendment.

“With let-them-eat-cake obliviousness, today, the majority pulls the ripcord and announces ‘colorblindness for all’ by legal fiat. But deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life,” Jackson wrote.

Democratic reaction

The decision drew condemnation from Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York, who called it a “giant roadblock” on the country’s journey to racial justice.

“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 than their parents and older siblings,” Schumer said in a statement Thursday.

Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Thursday’s decision threw the court’s legitimacy into question and analogized it to the Jim Crow era in the South after Reconstruction.

“We didn’t stop fighting for equality then and we won’t stop now because too much is at stake to allow extremists to turn back the clock on progress,” Horsford said in a statement.

The Biden administration had defended the practice, arguing that overturning the court’s precedent in admissions would “reverberate through every institution in America,” including the military.

In a petition before the court, the government wrote that the overruling the precedent would “dramatically reduce minority representation at our Nation’s leading institutions of higher education, compromise those institutions’ identities and missions, or both.”

Thursday’s majority opinion said it would not prohibit affirmative action in military academies given the “potentially distinct” interests in promoting a diverse officer corps. That point came in a footnote, which noted that none of the military academies was a part of the case.

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