A view of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on June 5. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption
Alex Wong/Getty Images
A view of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on June 5.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Supreme Court guts affirmative action, effectively ending race-conscious admissions
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In a historic decision, the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday effectively ended race-conscious admission programs at colleges and universities across the country. In a decision divided along ideological lines, the six-justice conservative supermajority invalidated admissions programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina.
The decision reverses decades of precedent upheld over the years by narrow Supreme Court majorities that included Republican-appointed justices. It ends the ability of colleges and universities — public and private — to do what most say they still need to do: consider race as one of many factors in deciding which of the qualified applicants is to be admitted.
Chief Justice John Roberts, a longtime critic of affirmative action programs, wrote the decision for the court majority, saying that the nation's colleges and universities must use colorblind criteria in admissions.
"Many universities have for too long...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," he wrote. "Our constitutional history does not tolerate that choice."
Justice Clarence Thomas took the unusual step of reading from the bench parts of his lengthy concurring opinion.
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Thursday's decision, he wrote, "sees the universities' admissions policies for what they are: rudderless, race-based preferences. ... Those policies fly in the face of our colorblind Constitution."
As he has done before, Thomas, the second black justice appointed to the court, reiterated his long-held view that affirmative action imposes a stigma on minorities. "While I am painfully aware of the social and economic ravages which have befallen my race and all who suffer discrimination, I hold our enduring hope that this country will live up to its principles that ... all men are created equal, are equal citizens, and must be treated equally before the law."
Roberts, for his part, pointed to the court's 2003 decision reaffirming the constitutionality of affirmative action programs, noting that Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, writing for the court at the time, had suggested that there would have to be an end at some future point. That time has now come, Roberts said.
"It feels tragic," said Columbia University President Bollinger, who has for 30 years been a leading proponent of affirmative action programs.
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"It feels like the country has been on a course of choosing between a continuation of the great era of civil rights, and another view of 'We've done this long enough, and we need a whole new approach.' It's now the second choice."
That sentiment echoed Justice Sonia Sotomayor's dissent.
"The Court subverts the constitutional guarantee of equal protection by further entrenching racial inequality in education, the very foundation of our democratic government and pluralistic society," she wrote.
Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the court's first Black female justice, also chimed in, saying: "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."
Indeed, the reality is that in those places where affirmative action has been eliminated, there has been a severe drop in minority, and particularly, African American, admissions. NYU law professor Melissa Murray was the acting dean at the University of California Berkeley in 2016 and 2017 when a state referendum barred the use of race in college admission decisions.
"There was an immediate drop off in the number of African American students that was both a confluence of the change in the admissions policy, but also African American students not wanting to go [to Berkeley] under those conditions," she said. "People don't want to be spotlighted. There is a kind of comfort in numbers, and it was very difficult for a very long time to recruit under those conditions."
Indeed, the situation got so bad, she says, that she had to go to the president of the state university system to get permission to place clusters of African American students in classes, instead of "sprinkling them around," leaving minority students alone to speak their mind when subjects of race were discussed.
Door is left slightly open
Now every school will be in that situation, or so it may seem.
The court did not entirely close the door to racial considerations in college admissions. As Roberts put it, "Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicants discussion of how race affected his or her life." Nor did the court address the tactic of clustering minority students in classes.
How the Supreme Court has ruled in the past about affirmative action
What's more, the court specifically left open the possibility that the nation's military academies, because of their "distinct interests," may be able to continue with their successful affirmative action programs, which have resulted in a very diverse officer corps.
"That issue is so sensitive because it raises the question of national security that the court has backed away from following its own logic," said University of California Berkeley professor Jerome Karabel.
He notes that a similar logic might apply to police forces seeking to recruit minorities so as to ensure that a virtually all white force would not be policing a majority Black town.
For the nation's colleges and universities, however, diversity will no longer be an acceptable rationale for taking race into account.
Thursday's decisions are likely to cause ripples throughout the country, and not just in higher education, but in selective primary and secondary schools like Boston Latin in Massachusetts, Thomas Jefferson high school in Virginia, and Bronx High School of Science in New York.
Read the Supreme Court decision reversing decades of precedent on affirmative action
Ultimately, effects will be felt in every aspect of the nation's economic, educational, and social life--from the Rooney rule that requires a minority applicant be considered in all NFL coach hiring decisions to employment and promotion decisions, DEI programs in schools and workplaces, and much more.
"We're going to be fighting about this for the next 30 years," said Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy.
Edward Blum, who for decades has been a one-man crusader against everything from the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act to affirmative action in higher education, plans to challenge some corporate boards on racial preference grounds, and he says he knows of other plans to challenge minority scholarship and fellowship programs.
UC's Karabel notes that there are already employment lawsuits pending, and "by the logic of this decision, I would think that racial discrimination, as defined by the court, would be banned in employment as well."
"It's going to open a Pandora's box across the country and across institutions and industries," said Harvard co-counsel Bill Lee in an NPR interview last fall.
How the case came to be
The court's decisions came in cases involving two elite institutions, one the oldest public university — the University of North Carolina — and the other, the oldest private university, Harvard. Blum, the anti-affirmative activist, likely chose these highly visible schools as his legal targets precisely because of their elite status.
UNC did not admit Black undergraduates until 1955, and then only after it was ordered to by the federal courts. Harvard, by contrast, became the model for affirmative action programs in 1978 when the Supreme Court cited the school's consideration of race as similar to other traits the school relied on to ensure a diverse student body. Thus, the court said back then that race could be one of many factors that the school considered, just as other characteristics were considered — geography, or being raised on a farm, or special achievements in everything from science to athletics, or being a so-called legacy student, the son or daughter of someone who attended Harvard.
That system, reaffirmed twice by the Supreme Court, has remained in place not just at Harvard, but at most of the institutions of higher learning across the United States. Until Thursday, when the court — as it did last year in the abortion case — upended decades of its own precedents.
The court majority made clear that it agreed with Students For Fair Admissions, which sued Harvard and UNC, claiming, among other things, that the schools discriminated against Asian American students who had SAT and grade scores higher than any other racial group, including whites, and who made up, at Harvard, for instance, 29% of the entering class last year. SFFA asserted that the number should have been higher than that, though Asians are just 7.2% of the U.S. population.
Harvard, in defending its current iteration of affirmative action, noted that each class has only 1,600 slots, but, by the numbers, it has thousands of equally qualified applicants. In the class of 2019, for instance, it had 35,000 applicants, 3,700 of them with perfect math SAT scores; 2,700 with perfect verbal SAT scores, and more than 8,000 with perfect grade point averages. There are no similar figures for the most recent incoming class at Harvard, but the number of applicants in 2023 has nearly doubled in the last four years.
What the public thinks
The reaction to Thursday's decision may be consternation in some quarters, but public opinion on affirmative action is not like abortion, a subject on which virtually every poll shows the public completely at odds with the court. Public opinion on affirmative actions is more nuanced and more mixed. Polls on the subject conflict: some show upwards of 60% approval for affirmative action programs, and others show less than 50% support.
Indeed, in liberal California, for instance, 57% of voters in 2020 cast their ballots against reinstating affirmative action in the state's public colleges and universities.
Generally, polls show that public support for affirmative action has grown in recent years, but voters are conflicted on the subject, with the outcome depending on how the question is asked. A recent Washington Post-Schar School Poll found that 6 in 10 Americans say race should not be considered in college admissions. But when the question was asked a slightly different way, the numbers showed big majorities endorsing programs to boost racial diversity on campuses.
And yet no alternative to affirmative action has worked as well as some consideration of race.
College admission administrators say schools that have tried to raise the numbers of Black and Latin0 students without any consideration of race have found that no other criterion — class, or economic status, or programs like a guarantee of admission for students in the top 5% or 10% of their high school class — works as well.
"The research is exceptionally clear," University of Texas professor Stella Flores, whose specialty is higher education and public policy, told NPR in an interview last fall. "There's no other alternative method that will racially diversify a student body, other than the use of race as one factor of consideration."
Court's 'double tak'
Harvard's Professor Kennedy points to what he calls "double talk: in the Supreme Court's Thursday opinion. Take two signs, he says: a sign that says "Black people stay out," and contrast it with a sign that says "Black people welcome."
"Both have race in them. Are they truly both racially discriminatory? The Supreme Court, at least on one side of its mouth, seems to say yes, they're both racially discriminatory. But at the end of the Supreme Court's opinion, it says, well of course one can look favorably on someone who's overcome racial impediments."
"I think we are at a very critical point," said Columbia President Bollinger, who, earlier in his career, shaped the affirmative action program at the University of Michigan, a program that was upheld in 2003. He sees the landscape of admissions systems now shifting markedly, with "the demise" of school rankings, and less emphasis on standardized test scores. Columbia, he notes, has more veterans than any other Ivy League college. "I think there will be a lot of experimentation in admissions, as there should be over the next decade."
The magnitude of Thursday's decision was emphasized by the fact that, in all, six justices wrote separately. And three justices spoke for more than 40 minutes from the bench--the chief justice in the majority, Thomas concurring, and Sotomayor in dissent. Indeed, in print, the Supreme Court's decisions, plus dissents and concurrences, reached a book-sized 237 pages.
Race has never been any easy subject for Americans to deal with, and it's about to get a lot harder.
Meghanlata Gupta contributed to this story.
The U.S. Supreme Court's decision to strike down affirmative action is expected to lead to declines in racial diversity at colleges and universities.What does Supreme Court ruling mean for college admissions? ›
The Supreme Court's landmark decision on Thursday to gut affirmative action has made it unlawful for colleges to take race into consideration as a specific factor in admissions.Has the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action? ›
Activists spurred by affirmative action ruling challenge legacy admissions at Harvard. Demonstrators protest outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, Thursday, June 29, 2023, after the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions, saying race cannot be a factor.What was the result of the Supreme Court decision in Regents v Bakke? ›
Recent News. Bakke decision, formally Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, ruling in which, on June 28, 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court declared affirmative action constitutional but invalidated the use of racial quotas.What ruling did the Supreme Court make about the use of affirmative action in University admissions in Grutter v Bollinger? ›
Bollinger, a case decided by the United States Supreme Court on June 23, 2003, upheld the affirmative action admissions policy of the University of Michigan Law School. The decision permitted the use of racial preference in student admissions to promote student diversity.What is the affirmative action rule? ›
Affirmative action in the United States consists of government-mandated, government-approved, and voluntary private programs granting special consideration to historically excluded groups, specifically racial minorities or women. The programs tended to focus on access to education and employment.What is affirmative action in simple terms? ›
Affirmative action refers to a policy aimed at increasing workplace and educational opportunities for people who are underrepresented in various areas of our society. It focuses on demographics with historically low representation in leadership and professional roles.What is the affirmative action policy for college admissions? ›
What Is Affirmative Action? In a higher education context, affirmative action – which stemmed from the civil rights movement in the 1960s – is the practice of considering student background characteristics such as race as a factor in deciding whether to admit an applicant.When did colleges start using affirmative action? ›
On July 20, 1995 the Board of Regents of the University of California adopted Regents Resolutions SP-1 and SP-2. In effect, SP-1 required that race, religion, sex, color, ethnicity, and national origin not be considered in the admissions decision process.Does Harvard have affirmative action? ›
The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that affirmative action policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina that consider a student's race for college admissions are unconstitutional.
“For the Class of 2019, about 28 percent of the class were legacies with a parent or other relative who went to Harvard,” LCR said in a statement.In what ways did the Supreme Court weaken affirmative action laws? ›
What factors led the Supreme Court to weaken affirmative action laws? -The Court ruled that particular affirmative action policies violate the Fourteenth Amendment. -The Court decided that affirmative action policies must survive strict scrutiny.Why was Bakke rejected? ›
In the case, Bakke was a white male who applied to medical school at the University California at Davis. Although his admissions score was well above that of the average admittee and the school had open slots when he applied, his application was rejected because of the school's racial quota system.What happened in the Bakke case? ›
Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 (1978), was a landmark decision by the Supreme Court of the United States that involved a dispute of whether preferential treatment for minorities could reduce educational opportunities for whites without violating the Constitution.How did the Supreme Court rule on affirmative action in the case of Regents v Bakke Brainly? ›
In Bakke, the court decided that the quota system was unconstitutional, along with the use of affirmative action policies to remedy the effects of racial discrimination.What two universities banned affirmative action? ›
Supreme Court justices ruled that the admissions policies at the University of North Carolina, one of the country's oldest public universities, and Harvard University, the country's oldest private university, violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.Which of the following is true about affirmative action today? ›
Which of the following is true of affirmative action programs? Employers are required to have quotas for hiring certain groups. Compared with the passive nature of Title VII, affirmative action means taking active steps to correct or reduce under-utilization of certain groups.Has affirmative action changed in college admissions in response to statewide bans and judicial rulings? ›
We find substantial declines in levels of affirmative action practiced by highly selective colleges in the states affected by bans and the Hopwood and Johnson rulings, and no evidence of declines outside these states (and thus modest and generally insignificant declines nationwide).What are the disadvantages of affirmative action? ›
Perhaps the most tragic side effect of affirmative action is that very significant achievements of minority students can become compromised. It is often not possible to tell whether a given student genuinely deserved admission to Stanford, or whether he is there by virtue of fitting into some sort of diversity matrix.What are the three basic elements of an affirmative action plan? ›
An affirmative action plan or program under this section shall contain three elements: a reasonable self analysis; a reasonable basis for concluding action is appropriate; and reasonable action.
However, many legal scholars point to the underlying goal of the Fourteenth Amendment - eliminating oppression - as a justification for affirmative action programs. The Supreme Court has upheld this idea in several cases, including Adarand Constructors v. Pena and Grutter v. Bollinger.What are the race categories for affirmative action? ›
White (not of Hispanic origin) Black (not of Hispanic origin) Asian or Pacific Islander.What are two examples of affirmative action? ›
Affirmative actions include training programs, outreach efforts, and other positive steps. These procedures should be incorporated into the company's written personnel policies.Which of the following is the most plausible argument for affirmative action? ›
Of these four arguments, which of the following is the most plausible argument FOR affirmative action? It is necessary to break the cycle that keeps minorities and women locked into low-paying, low-prestige jobs.Does being a minority help you get into college? ›
Trayes says that being a minority student with top scores is an advantage, not a handicap. “A student that represents cultural diversity and has the scores and transcripts that meet what colleges are looking for has an advantage,” she says.What are potential positives and negatives of affirmative action policies? ›
- Advantage: Diverse Workplace. ...
- Disadvantage: Creates a Stigma. ...
- Advantage: Attracts New Customer Base. ...
- Disadvantage: Perception of Reverse Discrimination.
How the End of Affirmative Action Could Affect the College Admissions Process. The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that college admissions can no longer specifically take race into account as a basis for admission, a decision that will now put limits on affirmative action programs across the country.What is Executive Order 11114? ›
Executive Order 11114—Extending the Authority of the President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity.Who brought affirmative action case to Supreme Court? ›
The affirmative action cases were brought by conservative activist Edward Blum, who also was behind an earlier affirmative action challenge against the University of Texas as well as the case that led the court in 2013 to end use of a key provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act.What did Executive Order 11246 do? ›
It prohibits federal contractors and federally assisted construction contractors and subcontractors, who do business with the federal government from discriminating in employment decisions on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
Yale has faced its own lawsuits when it comes to challenges against its use of affirmative action. The Department of Justice under the Trump administration sued the school for such practices but dropped that lawsuit in 2021. And Students for Fair Admissions had filed a similar lawsuit against the New Haven university.Do colleges still use affirmative action? ›
The practice is most common at highly selective institutions, while many less selective schools don't consider race. Nine states have separately banned affirmative action at private universities, including California, Michigan, Florida and Washington.Is affirmative action in all states? ›
Nine states already ban race-based affirmative action policies for public colleges: Arizona, California, Florida, Idaho, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Washington.Do cousins count as legacy? ›
Some schools only consider parents when assessing legacy status, while others consider grandparents or siblings. Legacy typically is associated with preferential treatment by an admissions office. Aunts, uncles, cousins and distant relatives do not count.Is Oxford better than Harvard? ›
Harvard is ranked second in National Universities, first in Global Universities by U.S. News, and first by the Round University Ranking, while Oxford is ranked first in Best Global Universities in Europe, fifth in Best Global Universities by U.S. News, and second by the QS World University Rankings.What is the ethnicity percentage at Harvard? ›
As of Fall 2020, the ethnic breakdown of Harvard undergraduates is approximately 39.6% White, 27.5% Asian, 10.8% Hispanic/Latino, 9.3% African American, 2.2% Native American/Alaskan Native/Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and 10.6% mixed-race or unknown (Data acquired from the Harvard College).What does the 14th Amendment say about race? ›
[The Fourteenth Amendment] was designed to assure to the colored race the enjoyment of all the civil rights that under the law are enjoyed by white persons, and to give to that race the protection of the general government in that enjoyment, whenever it should be denied by the States.Is religion a suspect class? ›
Overview. Under Equal Protection, when a statute discriminates against an individual based on a suspect classification, that statute will be subject to either strict scrutiny or intermediate scrutiny. There are four generally agreed-upon suspect classifications: race, religion, national origin, and alienage.Why is the 14th Amendment controversial today? ›
This is because, for the first time, the proposed Amendment added the word "male" into the US Constitution. Section 2, which dealt explicitly with voting rights, used the term "male." And women's rights advocates, especially those who were promoting woman suffrage or the granting of the vote to women, were outraged.What was the Bakke decision in simple words? ›
Bakke (1978), the Supreme Court ruled that a university's use of racial "quotas" in its admissions process was unconstitutional, but a school's use of "affirmative action" to accept more minority applicants was constitutional in some circumstances.
Recent News. Bakke decision, formally Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, ruling in which, on June 28, 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court declared affirmative action constitutional but invalidated the use of racial quotas.What was the majority opinion in University of California vs Bakke? ›
There was no single majority opinion. Four of the justices contended that any racial quota system supported by government violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr., agreed, casting the deciding vote ordering the medical school to admit Bakke.Which case upheld affirmative action? ›
In 1978's Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the court determined that affirmative action was lawful, a ruling that it upheld multiple times, including in the 2003 case Grutter v. Bollinger and in the 2013 and 2016 cases Fisher v. University of Texas.What was Powell's opinion on Bakke? ›
The practical consequences of the Bakke decision for higher education were summed up in the majority judgment endorsed by Justice Powell and the Brennan group: “The State has a substantial interest that may legitimately be served by a properly devised admissions program involving the competitive consideration of race ...What was Justice Powell's decision in the Bakke case? ›
In Bakke, Justice Powell identified the medical school's interest in providing the educational benefits of a diverse student body as a constitutionally permissible basis for consideration of race in admissions.How did the Supreme Court rule on affirmative action in college admissions? ›
The Supreme Court's landmark decision on Thursday to gut affirmative action has made it unlawful for colleges to take race into consideration as a specific factor in admissions.Which of these statements best summarizes the purpose of affirmative action? ›
Which of these statements best summarizes the purpose of affirmative action? To achieve racial equality by giving preferential treatment to minorities.What is the summary of affirmative action? ›
An Affirmative Action Plan (AAP) is a tool, a written program in which an employer details the steps it has taken and will take to ensure the right of all persons to advance on the basis of merit and ability without regard to race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, genetic information, veteran's ...How did the Supreme Court rule on affirmative action quizlet? ›
-The Court ruled that particular affirmative action policies violate the Fourteenth Amendment. -The Court decided that affirmative action policies must survive strict scrutiny. How has the Supreme Court influenced the application of the Voting Rights Act in its recent decisions?Which Supreme Court decision upheld affirmative action quizlet? ›
Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003), was a landmark case in which the United States Supreme Court upheld the affirmative action admissions policy of the University of Michigan Law School.
Since 1978, when affirmative action in college admissions was first upheld by the US supreme court, civil rights leaders have fended off various challenges to dismantle the policy.What was the first major affirmative action case ruled on by the Supreme Court quizlet? ›
The case of University of California Regents v. Bakke was the first dispute over affirmative action policy in the U.S. Supreme Court.What has caused the Supreme Court to weaken affirmative action laws? ›
What has caused the Supreme Court to weaken affirmative action laws? The Court decided that affirmative action policies must survive strict scrutiny. Some affirmative action policies violated the Fourteenth Amendment.How and why are the Supreme Courts decisions about affirmative action changing overtime? ›
Sequence Events How, and why, are the Supreme Court's decisions about affirmative action changing over time? The Supreme Courts' decisions about affirmative action change over time because they are made to fit undergoing needs of minorities. If there is no discrimination, there won't be a need for affirmative action.Why might the Supreme Court find instances of affirmative action unconstitutional quizlet? ›
Why might the Supreme Court find instances of affirmative action unconstitutional? The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) ruled that creating "an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment" is contrary to the law.What component of affirmative action did the Supreme Court rule unconstitutional? ›
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the race-conscious college admissions processes at Harvard and the University of North Carolina are unconstitutional. In a 6-3 decision along ideological lines, the justices ruled that the admissions policies that include race as a factor violate the Equal Protection Clause.Why did the Supreme Court allow the use of affirmative action programs quizlet? ›
Why did the Supreme Court allow the use of affirmative-action programs? Affirmative action is a policy or action that favored those who suffer from discrimination, especially with education or employment. The Supreme Court allowed the programs because it was difficult to enforce anti-discrimination laws.What did the Supreme Court determine was unconstitutional in Brown v Board of education? ›
In this milestone decision, the Supreme Court ruled that separating children in public schools on the basis of race was unconstitutional.Was the first decision of the Supreme Court of the United States to declare an act of Congress unconstitutional? ›
The U.S. Supreme Court case Marbury v. Madison (1803) established the principle of judicial review—the power of the federal courts to declare legislative and executive acts unconstitutional. The unanimous opinion was written by Chief Justice John Marshall.When was affirmative action first mentioned? ›
In response to the civil rights movement, President John F. Kennedy created a Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity in 1961 and issued Executive Order 10925, which used the term "affirmative action" to refer to measures designed to achieve non-discrimination.
The policy of affirmative action dates to the Reconstruction Era in the United States, 1863–1877. Current policy was introduced in the early 1960s in the United States, as a way to combat racial discrimination in the hiring process, with the concept later expanded to address gender discrimination.What was the first case heard before the Supreme Court and what was it about? ›
The first cases reached the Supreme Court during its second year, and the Justices handed down their first opinion on August 3, 1791 in the case of West v. Barnes. During its first decade of existence, the Supreme Court rendered some significant decisions and established lasting precedents.What was the first Supreme Court case that established the right of the Court to rule on constitutionality of federal laws? ›
With his decision in Marbury v. Madison, Chief Justice John Marshall established the principle of judicial review, an important addition to the system of “checks and balances” created to prevent any one branch of the Federal Government from becoming too powerful.