On 29 June, the US Supreme Court banned the use of race and ethnicity in university admissions. This dealt a major blow to a decades-old practice of ‘affirmative action’, which boosted educational opportunities for African Americans and other minorities.
One year after overturning the guarantee of a right to an abortion, the court’s conservative majority again demonstrated its readiness to scrap liberal policies set in law since the 1960s.
The ruling against ‘affirmative action’ was delivered by a court heavily stacked with conservatives. Donald Trump appointed three of the justices during his presidency alone.
‘Students for Fair Admissions’
The justices broke six to three along conservative-liberal lines in the decision. They sided with an activist group, Students for Fair Admissions, that sued the oldest private and public universities in the country – Harvard University and the University of North Carolina (UNC) – over their admissions policies.
The group claimed that race-conscious admissions policies discriminated against Asian Americans competing to enter the two universities.
Harvard and UNC, like a number of other competitive US schools, consider an applicant’s race or ethnicity as a factor to ensure a diverse student body and representation of minorities.
Such affirmative action policies arose from the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. They aimed to help address the legacy of discrimination against African Americans. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) described the manner of policies damaged by the ruling:
Race conscious policies, such as affirmative action, aim to address racial discrimination by recognizing and responding to the structural barriers that have denied underrepresented students access to higher education. Race-conscious admissions practices allow universities to consider a student’s race as one factor in the admissions process in order to help create a diverse student body that enriches the educational experiences of all students.
Supreme Court: ‘Not on the basis of race’
The ruling dealt a heavy defeat to efforts to expand diversity in school admissions, as well as business and government hiring.
Chief justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion that while affirmative action was “well-intentioned” it could not last forever. He also ruled that it amounted to unconstitutional discrimination against others.
The student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual – not on the basis of race.
The court said that universities were free to consider an applicant’s background – whether, for example, they grew up experiencing racism – in weighing their application over more academically qualified students. But deciding primarily based on whether the applicant is white, Black or other is itself racial discrimination, Roberts wrote.
Setback to progress
Justice Sonia Sotomayor offered a scathing rebuttal. She accused the majority of being colorblind to the reality of “an endemically segregated society”. She also wrote that:
Ignoring race will not equalize a society that is racially unequal.
This succinctly explains why affirmative action and similar policies are necessary in America. The president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, Mildred García, echoed Sotomayor’s sentiment. She said in a statement:
Fifty years since the passage of civil rights legislation has not been nearly enough to address or correct more than 350 years of discriminatory practices intended to keep people of color away from higher education institutions or, starting in the 19th century, severely limit their prospects of increasing their educational attainment.
In short, racism is far from over in America – or anywhere else, for that matter. As long as it persists, the university as an institution will be biased – overtly and covertly – against Black people. This is true of the admissions system, but is far from limited to it.
Featured image via Wikimedia Commons/Krisanne Johnson, resized to 1910*1000, public domain.
Additional reporting via Agence France-Presse