Supreme Court takes America backward by striking down college affirmative action

Simply declaring that schools should now be color-blind won’t make it real — or fair. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote as much in a separate dissent, “[D]eeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life.”

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Harvard students Nahla Owens (left) and Kashish Bastola react Thursday outside the U.S. Supreme Court building after the court struck down affirmative action.

Harvard students Nahla Owens (left) and Kashish Bastola react Thursday outside the U.S. Supreme Court building after the court struck down affirmative action.

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On Thursday, in a decision that turns a blind eye to the realities of race in America and sets aside years of legal precedent, the Supreme Court did what court watchers had been expecting for weeks: It struck down affirmative action in higher education.

In cases involving admissions programs at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, the court’s conservative majority ruled that the use of race as a factor in college admissions is unconstitutional. No matter that previous court rulings, in a string of cases stretching back to 1978, had upheld such race-conscious admissions.

University officials, students and politicians from President Joe Biden to Illinois’ two senators, slammed Thursday’s ruling as an attack on equity for people of color.

Editorial

Editorial

This editorial board agrees. At a time when America is continuing to inch forward toward racial equality, the court’s six conservatives decided to take our nation backward on the journey.

It’s especially galling, in our view, that the ruling involves access to education, which ought to be the “great equalizer” of American society. Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor made that point in her dissenting opinion, writing the decision “rolls back decades of precedent and momentous progress.”

We hope — and expect — that in the coming days, weeks and months, more college officials will echo the stance of Northwestern University President Michael Schill. In a letter to the Northwestern community, Schill vowed the ruling wouldn’t change the school’s commitment to diversity as essential to learning.

“Bringing together people of different backgrounds, viewpoints and experiences enables us to learn from one another and propels our research, arts and discovery to new levels, allowing us to have an even greater impact on the world,” Schill wrote. “Today’s ruling does not change that commitment.”

Colleges can start down that path with eliminating the practice of so-called legacy admissions, especially for children of wealthy alumni. Some elite colleges, such as MIT and the University of California at Berkeley, have already done so.

Why should a high school student from a rich family get a leg up on getting into a top-tier school just because that student’s parents can donate millions for a new building on campus?

Far from being color-blind

In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote, “The student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual — not on the basis of race.”

How on earth, we ask, can Roberts and the five fellow justices who joined him in the majority ignore the obvious: America is not color-blind. Race, more often than not, plays the defining role in a person’s “experiences as an individual” in this country.

Simply declaring that schools should now be color-blind won’t make it real — or fair. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote as much in a separate dissent: “[D]eeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life.”

The six conservative justices — Roberts, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Clarence Thomas, Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — sided with white and Asian students who had sued Harvard and the UNC, claiming they were discriminated against in admissions because of affirmative action policies that were aimed at recruiting more Black, Latino and Native American students.

Schools can make a commitment to diversity, but long-term, it’s likely inevitable that colleges will become less diverse. That’s what happened, for example, in California after that state banned affirmative action in public colleges and universities in 1996.

Race-conscious admissions in higher education — using race as one factor among many in admission decisions — had been upheld since 1978, when the Supreme Court ruled in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke that colleges and universities can use affirmative action to admit more applicants of color and further the goal of student diversity. In other cases, including two in 2003 and the latest in 2016, the high court upheld the practice.

Thursday marked the second time in two terms that the court, now dominated by conservative Republican appointees, tossed aside decades of major historic precedent. Last year, the court stripped away abortion rights that had been upheld in case after case since 1973, when Roe v. Wade granted women the constitutional right to have an abortion.

The Dobbs decision was completely out of step with public opinion, which strongly favors reproductive rights. Public opinion on affirmative action is more mixed: Half of all Americans disapprove of selective colleges taking race and ethnicity into account in admissions decisions, a spring 2023 survey by Pew Research Center found.

But tellingly, a May survey from The Associated Press and NORC at the University of Chicago found that most adults — about 60% — said the Supreme Court should not take the step of banning race-conscious college admissions.

Public approval of the court recently reached a historic low of 25% in a recent Gallup poll.

Thursday’s ruling, we suspect, will do nothing to raise that rating.

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