Letter from an American - June 29, 2023

The U.S. Supreme Court is seen on June 29, 2023, in Washington, D.C. © Stephanie Scarbrough/AP

Today the Supreme Court handed down a decision in Students for Fair Admissions, Inc., v. President and Fellows of Harvard College. Students for Fair Admissions is an organization designed to fight against affirmative action in college admissions, and today it achieved its goal: the Supreme Court decided that policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina that consider race as a factor in admissions are unconstitutional because they violate the guarantee of equal protection before the law, established by the Fourteenth Amendment. 

The deciding votes were 6 to 2 in the case of Harvard—Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson recused herself because she had been a member of Harvard’s board of overseers—and 6 to 3 in the case of the University of North Carolina. 

In the case of the two schools at the center of this Supreme Court decision, admissions officers initially evaluated students on a number of categories. Harvard used six: academic, extracurricular, athletic, school support, personal, and overall. Then, after the officers identified an initial pool of applicants who were all qualified for admission, they cut down the list to a final class. At Harvard, those on the list to be cut were evaluated on four criteria: legacy status, recruited athlete status, financial aid eligibility, and race. Today, the Supreme Court ruled that considering race as a factor in that categorical fashion is unconstitutional. 

The court did not rule that race could not be considered at all. In the majority decision, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that “nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.”

How much this will matter for colleges and universities is unclear. Journalist James Fallows pointed out that there are between 3,500 and 5,500 colleges in the U.S. and all but 100 of them admit more than 50% of the students who apply. Only about 70 admit fewer than a third of all applicants. That is, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, “the great majority of schools, where most Americans get their postsecondary education, admit most of the people who apply to them.” 

The changing demographics of the country are also changing student populations. As an example, in 2022, more than 33% of the students at the University of Texas at Austin, which automatically admits any Texas high school student in the top 6% of their class, were from historically underrepresented populations. And universities that value diversity may continue to try to create a diverse student body.

But in the past, when schools have eliminated affirmative action, Black student numbers have dropped off, both because of changes in admission policies and because Black students have felt unwelcome in those schools. This matters to the larger pattern of American society. As Black and Brown students are cut off from elite universities, they are also cut off from the pipeline to elite graduate schools and jobs. 

More is at stake in this case than affirmative action in university admissions. The decision involves the central question of whether the law is colorblind or whether it can be used to fix long-standing racial inequality. Does the Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868 to enable the federal government to overrule state laws that discriminated against Black Americans, allow the courts to enforce measures to address historic discrimination? 

Those joining the majority in the decision say no. They insist that the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment after the Civil War intended only that it would make men of all races equal before the law, and that considering race in college admissions undermines that principle by using race in a negative manner, involving racial stereotyping (by considering race by category), and lacking an endpoint. “Many universities have for too long wrongly concluded that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned, but the color of their skin. This Nation’s constitutional history does not tolerate that choice,” the majority opinion reads. 

In a concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that affirmative action actually made racial tensions worse because it “highlights our racial differences with pernicious effect,” prolonging “the asserted need for racial discrimination.” He wrote: “under our Constitution, race is irrelevant.” “The great failure of this country was slavery and its progeny,” Thomas wrote. “And, the tragic failure of this Court was its misinterpretation of the Reconstruction Amendments.” 

Those justices who dissented—Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ketanji Brown Jackson—pointed to the profound racial discrimination that continued after the Civil War and insist that the law has the power to address that discrimination in order to achieve the equality promised by the Fourteenth Amendment. “The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment enshrines a guarantee of racial equality,” Sotomayor’s opinion begins. “The Court long ago concluded that this guarantee can be enforced through race-conscious means in a society that is not, and has never been, colorblind.” 

In her concurring opinion concerning the UNC case, Jackson noted that “[g]ulf-sized race-based gaps exist with respect to the health, wealth, and well-being of American citizens. They were created in the distant past, but have indisputably been passed down to the present day through the generations. Every moment these gaps persist is a moment in which this great country falls short of actualizing one of its foundational principles—the ‘self-evident’ truth that all of us are created equal.” 

If this fight sounds political, it should. It mirrors the current political climate in which right-wing activists reject the idea of systemic racism that the U.S. has acknowledged and addressed in the law since the 1950s. They do not believe that the Fourteenth Amendment supports the civil rights legislation that tries to guarantee equality for historically marginalized populations, and in today’s decision the current right-wing majority on the court demonstrated that it is willing to push that political agenda at the expense of settled law. As recently as 2016, the court reaffirmed that affirmative action, used since the 1960s, is constitutional. Today’s court just threw that out.  

The split in the court focused on history, and the participants’ anger was palpable and personal. Thomas claimed that “[a]s [Jackson] sees things, we are all inexorably trapped in a fundamentally racist society, with the original sin of slavery and the historical subjugation of black Americans still determining our lives today.” Her solution, he writes, “is to unquestioningly accede to the view of elite experts and reallocate society’s riches by racial means as necessary to ‘level the playing field,’ all as judged by racial metrics…. I strongly disagree.” 

Jackson responded that “Justice Thomas’s prolonged attack…responds to a dissent I did not write in order to assail an admissions program that is not the one UNC has crafted.” 

She noted that Black Americans had always simply wanted the same right to take care of themselves that white Americans had enjoyed, but it had been denied them. She recounted the nation’s long history of racial discrimination and excoriated the majority for pretending it didn’t exist. “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. And having so detached itself from this country’s actual past and present experiences, the Court has now been lured into interfering with the crucial work that UNC and other institutions of higher learning are doing to solve America’s real-world problems.”

“Today, the Supreme Court upended decades of precedent that enabled America’s colleges and universities to build vibrant diverse environments where students are prepared to lead and learn from one another,” the Biden administration said in a statement, warning that “the Court’s decision threatens to move the country backwards.” In a speech to reporters, Biden called for new standards that take into consideration the adversity—including poverty—a student has overcome when selecting among qualified candidates, a system that would work “for everyone… from Appalachia to Atlanta and far beyond.”

“While the Court can render a decision, it cannot change what America stands for.”

By Heather Cox Richardson

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