A Devastating Ruling on Affirmative Action in Higher Education


The conservative fringe of the U.S. Supreme Court continues to unravel progressive gains. After depriving women of their constitutional right to an abortion in June 2022, now a majority of six conservative justices has brought an end to affirmative action in college admissions, burying one of the symbols of the 1960s’ struggle for civil rights.

The ruling came down after decades of vigorous debate regarding admissions practices, including affirmative action, which means taking race into account when considering a prospective student’s application. In this case, Harvard, a private university, and the University of North Carolina, a public one, were sued by the organization Students for Fair Admissions, which argued that affirmative action discriminated against students of Asian descent whose near-perfect academic achievements were no longer enough to place them among the top candidates. In 2022, Harvard admitted 2,000 candidates from a pool of 60,000. In almost crude terms, it is what some have dared to describe as “reverse racism.”

It is impossible to ignore the irony here. In the name of the lived discrimination of a racial group, the court abolished a practice specifically put in place to make up for an era of total exclusion of Black people from, for example, college campuses. Affirmative action has immense historical significance for the U.S., as it was implemented to establish a standard of equal opportunity following a tragic reign of particularly odious racial segregation at certain institutions of higher education.

Poorly implemented, the practice angered some and gave rise to transgressions like the one seen in Quebec where an opening for a research chair position at Laval University sought to exclude white males, stirring controversy. Likewise, the idea of quotas, rejected multiple times by the U.S. Supreme Court, seems excessive in nature. But the spirit of race-conscious admissions policies, which aim to attain greater diversity on college campuses and, by extension, in society, had always been deemed legitimate. That is, until last Thursday.

In a decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the highest court in the land ruled that affirmative action as applied at universities violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. “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. Our constitutional history does not tolerate that choice,” the chief justice wrote.

In a dissent by the three progressive justices, Justice Sonia Sotomayor stressed that the majority were under the illusion “that racial inequality was a problem of a different generation,” but that “entrenched racial inequality remains a reality today.”

The story here is one of a shift that is stirring and troubling: Policies put in place to counter real discrimination in college admissions based on the color of one’s skin are being undermined by a fallacious motive, or — with all due respect to the court — the erroneous impression that racial inequities do not exist or do not penalize some racial and ethnic groups more than others in college admissions or employment. It is true that affirmative action policies have not led to explosive increases in the percentages of Black or Hispanic students over the years, but this is all the more reason not to cease these efforts and risk eroding the meager gains already made.

Admissions to top universities translate into political and professional functions. Graduates from racialized groups will be fewer in number if college entrance is made more difficult for them. The Supreme Court ruling will have an impact on the composition of American society, and it opens the door to less stringent standards of equal opportunity, as there is no indication that discrimination has been eradicated — quite the contrary.

The Supreme Court did grant an opening that colleges and universities will be able to fall back on, which is the consideration of a candidate’s personal experience during the application process. They are vowing to comply with the law, while Harvard and UNC have announced that they will creatively maintain criteria that guarantee a greater equality of opportunity. A warning to those who would dare defy the spirit of this destructive new ruling: It is a safe bet they will find themselves again before the court.

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About Reg Moss 111 Articles
Reg is a writer, teacher, and translator with an interest in social issues especially as pertains to education and matters of race, class, gender, immigration, etc.

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