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Supreme Court strikes down race-based college admission practices

WASHINGTON, D.C., June 29, 2023—The United States Supreme Court overwhelming voted on Thursday, June 29, to end race-based college admission deeming the practice unlawful by stating it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.

The 6-3 vote in the Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. University of North Carolina and the 6-2 vote in the Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College now outlaws all race-based admission programs for colleges and universities that accept public monies or that are publicly funded.

Chief Justice John Roberts was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett who voted in the majority. The dissenting Justices were Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ketanji Brown Jackson who recused herself from the Harvard College ruling.

A key argument by the majority viewpoint was the condition of race-based admissions in the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger ruling, “At some point… they must end.”

The majority decision delivered by Chief Justice John Roberts read:

“’Harvard’s view about when [race-based admissions will end] doesn’t have a date on it.’ Tr. of Oral Arg. in No. 20–1199, p. 85; Brief for Respondent in No. 20–1199, p. 52. Neither does UNC’s. 567 F. Supp. 3d, at 612. Yet both insist that the use of race in their admissions programs must continue.

“But we have permitted race-based admissions only within the confines of narrow restrictions. University programs must comply with strict scrutiny, they may never use race as a stereotype or negative, and—at some point—they must end. Respondents’ admissions systems—however well intentioned and implemented in good faith—fail each of these criteria. They must therefore be invalidated under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

A key argument by both Harvard College and the University of North Carolina was that their admission programs were for a larger societal goal.

Justice Clearance Thomas wrote, “that all forms of discrimination based on race—including so-called affirmative action—are prohibited under the Constitution.”

“In an effort to salvage their patently unconstitutional programs, the universities and their amici pivot to argue that the Fourteenth Amendment permits the use of race to benefit only certain racial groups—rather than applicants writ large. Yet, this is just the latest disguise for discrimination. The sudden narrative shift is not surprising, as it has long been apparent that “‘diversity [was] merely the current rationale of convenience’” to support racially discriminatory admissions programs,” Justice Thomas wrote.

Justice Thomas later added, “Anyone who today thinks that some form of racial discrimination will prove ‘helpful’ should thus tread cautiously, lest racial discriminators succeed (as they once did) in using such language to disguise more invidious motives.”

In contrast, Justice Sonia Sotomayor in her dissenting argument wrote:

“Today, this Court stands in the way and rolls back decades of precedent and momentous progress. It holds that race can no longer be used in a limited way in college admissions to achieve such critical benefits. In so holding, the Court cements a superficial rule of colorblindness as a constitutional principle in an endemically segregated society where race has always mattered and continues to matter.”

“The opinion issued today by the United States Supreme Court marks the beginning of the restoration of the colorblind legal covenant that binds together our multi-racial, multi-ethnic nation,” Students for Fair Admissions, the plaintiff in both cases, released in a statement following the Supreme Court Decision.

The student activist group further stated, “Ending racial preferences in college admissions is an outcome that the vast majority of all races and ethnicities will celebrate. A university doesn’t have real diversity when it simply assembles students who look different but come from similar backgrounds and act, talk, and think alike.”

The complaint against Harvard College alleged that its race-based admission programs penalized Asian American students, and that they failed to employ race-neutral practices.

According to court records, Harvard College employed a limitation of 17-20 percent for Asian American students from 2009 to 2018. At Harvard College, the data shows that Black students in the 40th percentile of their academic index had a greater chance of getting in than Asian students in the 100th percentile and that Black students in the 50th percentile are more likely to be admitted than White students at the top percentile.

The North Carolina case raised the issue of whether it can legally reject the use of non-race-based practices without showing that they would bring down the school’s academic standard or negatively impact its position on diversity.

In a statement released on Twitter, President Joe Biden wrote, “I strongly disagree with this decision.” He further stated that the Supreme Court’s decision is “not the last word.”

In a White House press release on the Supreme Court’s historic ruling that Biden stated is a threat “to move the country backwards,” he is calling on colleges and universities “to seize the opportunity to expand access to educational opportunity for all.”

In a move that appears to circumvent the Court’s ruling, President Biden is calling on colleges and universities, when selecting among qualified applicants, to give serious consideration to the adversities students have overcome, including:

  • the financial means of a student or their family;
  • where a student grew up and went to high school; and
  • personal experiences of hardship or discrimination, including racial discrimination, that a student may have faced.

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