US top court bans colleges from considering race in admissions

US Supreme Court sides with groups arguing that race-conscious admissions programmes discriminate against some students.

The United States Supreme Court has ruled that colleges must stop considering race as a factor in their admission policies, dealing a setback to so-called “affirmative action” efforts aimed at boosting the enrolment of Black and Latino students at top universities.

The top court’s decision on Thursday came in response to lawsuits that challenged the policies of Harvard University and the University of North Carolina (UNC) by claiming race-conscious student admissions programmes discriminate against white and Asian-American applicants.

The ruling is the latest by the conservative-dominated court to advance right-wing political causes, and it could have significant implications for US college enrolment and diversity on campuses across the country.

President Joe Biden decried the court’s decision on Thursday, calling on universities to continue to advance diversity in spite of the ruling, by considering race-related factors like adversity.

“I’ve always believed that the promise of America is big enough for everyone to succeed, and that every generation of Americans – we have benefited by opening the doors of opportunity just a little bit wider to include those who’ve been left behind,” Biden told reporters.

He stressed that the top court bucked precedents – previous rulings that establish legal norms – in its decision on Thursday. “We cannot let this decision be the last word on it,” Biden said.

Asked whether the Supreme Court is “rogue”, Biden said it is not a “normal” court.

The top court ultimately found affirmative action to be in violation of US Constitution provisions that establish equal protection under the law.

“College admissions are zero-sum. A benefit provided to some applicants but not to others necessarily advantages the former group at the expense of the latter,” the Supreme Court said in its decision, embracing the argument that affirmative action benefitting some minority students disadvantages others.

Decision and dissent

The vote was six-to-three in the UNC case and six-to-two in the Harvard case, with Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson recusing herself from the latter because she had been a member of an advisory governing board at the university.

In a dissenting opinion, liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that “indifference to race” does not advance equality, stressing that racial inequality continues to prevail in the US, including at UNC and Harvard.

“Ignoring race will not equalize a society that is racially unequal. What was true in the 1860s, and again in 1954, is true today: Equality requires acknowledgment of inequality,” she said, referring to the US Civil War that ended slavery and the Civil Rights movement, respectively.

The NAACP civil rights advocacy group was quick to denounce the top court’s ruling on Thursday.

“This is a dark day in America,” Wisdom Cole, national director of the group’s youth and college division, said in a statement.

“Affirmative action has been a beacon of hope for generations of Black students. It stood as a powerful force against the insidious poison of racism and sexism, aiming to level the playing field and provide a fair shot at a high-quality education for all.”

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer also decried the decision, calling it a “giant roadblock” in the country’s march towards racial justice.

Affirmative action

The Congressional Black Caucus also hit out at the top court. “By delivering a decision on affirmative action so radical as to deny young people seeking an education equal opportunity in our education system, the Supreme Court has thrown into question its own legitimacy,” it said in a statement.

Under affirmative action, some US colleges have considered race among several factors when assessing students’ applications, boosting the chances of Black and other minority students.

Proponents of the practice have argued that it aims to correct some of the historical injustices people of colour faced in the US and level the playing field for all students.

They also have underscored the racial wealth gap, as well as some colleges’ “legacy” admission programmes that favour the children of graduates from the institutions.

Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said on Thursday that if the Supreme Court is serious about so-called colour-blindness, then justices should also abolish legacy admissions, which she called “affirmative action for the privileged”.

Critics of affirmative action have argued affirmative action works against white and some minority students – namely Asian Americans – who also may come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

On Thursday, Republican Senator Tom Cotton called affirmative action “systemic discrimination” and expressed gratitude to the Supreme Court for its ruling.

“Admissions should be decided on merit – not by color of skin,” Cotton wrote on Twitter.

Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader in the US Senate, also welcomed the decision as making clear that “students will get a fair shot at college and the American dream based on merit and not illegal social engineering”.

‘Essential values’

Reporting from Washington, DC, Al Jazeera’s Rosiland Jordan said the Supreme Court’s ruling is “incredibly significant” and will affect US universities’ efforts to bolster diversity.

Affirmative action, Jordan explained, was about “not just trying to redress past discrimination, but it also [helped] the schools achieve what they believe is a laudable goal, which is to expose young people who are just starting out in life to other people of different backgrounds”.

Nine US states have already banned colleges from considering race in applications, and several of them saw a drop in minority student enrolment after the restriction.

For example, at the University of Michigan, Black student enrolment dropped to 4 percent in 2022 from 7 percent when the state ended affirmative action in 2006.

Harvard said on Thursday that it will push to preserve its “essential values” while complying with the Supreme Court’s decision.

“We write today to reaffirm the fundamental principle that deep and transformative teaching, learning, and research depend upon a community comprising people of many backgrounds, perspectives, and lived experiences. That principle is as true and important today as it was yesterday,” the university’s leaders said in a statement.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies