The US Supreme Court on Thursday struck down race-conscious admissions programs at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, effectively prohibiting affirmative action policies long used to raise the number of Black, Hispanic and other underrepresented minority students on campuses.
In a blockbuster decision that will force many American colleges to overhaul their admissions policies, the justices ruled that affirmative action admissions programs that consider an applicant's race in ways like Harvard and UNC did violate the US Constitution's promise of equal protection under the law.
Powered by the court's conservative justices with the liberal justices in dissent, the justices ruled in favor of a group called Students for Fair Admissions, founded by anti-affirmative action activist Edward Blum, in its appeal of lower court rulings upholding programs used at the two prestigious schools to foster a diverse student population. The vote counts were 6-3 against UNC and 6-2 against Harvard.
In major rulings last year with far-reaching societal implications also spearheaded by the conservatives justices, the court overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that had legalized abortion nationwide and widened gun rights in a pair of landmark rulings.
Chief Justice John Roberts, who authored Thursday's ruling, said that a student "must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual not on the basis of race. Many universities have for too long done just the opposite. And in doing so, they have 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."
According to Harvard, around 40% of US colleges and universities consider race in some fashion
"Harvard and UNC admissions programs cannot be reconciled with the guarantees of the Equal Protection Clause," Roberts wrote, referring to the constitutional provision.
Universities, Roberts added, may still consider student writings in personal essays about "how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise." But, Roberts said, "universities may not simply establish through application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today."
Affirmative action had withstood Supreme Court scrutiny for decades, most recently in a 2016 ruling involving a white student, backed by Blum, who sued the University of Texas after being rejected for admission.
The Supreme Court has shifted rightward since 2016 and now includes three justices who dissented in the University of Texas case and three new appointees by Republican former President Donald Trump, who is running again in 2024. Trump on Thursday hailed the ruling as "a great day for America."
Many institutions of higher education, corporations and military leaders have long backed affirmative action on campuses not simply to remedy racial inequity and exclusion in American life but to ensure a talent pool that can bring a range of perspectives to the workplace and the US armed forces.
Thursday's ruling appeared to exempt military service academies from its sweep, with Roberts highlighting "the potentially distinct interests that military academies may present," and noting that the litigation had not addressed "the propriety of race-based admissions systems in that context."
President Joe Biden's administration has in recent weeks been discussing possible executive actions he could take in response to the court's decision on affirmative action, a source familiar with the matter said after the ruling.
'LET THEM EAT CAKE'
Liberal Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman to serve on the court, wrote in a dissent: "With let-them-eat-cake obliviousness, today, the (court's) 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."
Jackson did not participate in the Harvard case because of her past affiliation with the university.
Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a dissent that the decision "subverts" the constitutional guarantee of equal protection and further entrenches racial inequality in education. "Today, this Court stands in the way and rolls back decades of precedent and momentous progress," she wrote in a dissent joined by Jackson and Liberal Justice Elena Kagan.
Sotomayor added, 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."
Blum's group in lawsuits filed in 2014 accused UNC of discriminating against white and Asian American applicants and Harvard of bias against Asian American applicants.
Students for Fair Admissions alleged that the adoption by UNC, a public university, of an admissions policy that is not race neutral violates the guarantee to equal protection of the law under the Constitution's 14th Amendment.
The group contended Harvard, a private university, violated Title VI of a landmark federal law called the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars discrimination based on race, color or national origin under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.
Harvard and UNC have said they use race as only one factor in a host of individualized evaluations for admission without quotas - permissible under previous Supreme Court precedents - and that curbing its consideration would cause a significant drop in enrollment of students from under-represented groups.
Critics, who have tried to topple these policies for decades, argue these policies are themselves discriminatory.
Harvard's leaders said in a statement they would "determine how to preserve, consistent with the court's new precedent, our essential values."
University of North Carolina System President Peter Hans pledged to "follow the law."
"Our public universities do extraordinary work every day to serve students of all backgrounds, beliefs, income levels and life experiences," Hans added.
Affirmative action in America history
The United States is a nation that long has struggled with issues of race, dating back to its history of slavery of Black people that ended only after a Civil War, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and in recent years racial justice protests that followed police killings of Black people.
Many US conservatives and Republican elected officials have argued that giving advantages to one race is unconstitutional regardless of the motivation or circumstances. Some have advanced the argument that remedial preferences are no longer needed because America has moved beyond racist policies of the past such as segregation and is becoming increasingly diverse.
The ruling did not explicitly say it was overruling landmark precedent upholding affirmative action.
But conservative Justice Clarence Thomas in a concurring opinion wrote that the court's Grutter v. Bollinger ruling that colleges could consider race as one factor in the admissions process because of the compelling interest of creating a diverse student body "is, for all intents and purposes, overruled."
Blum celebrated the ruling he had long sought, saying it "marks the beginning of the restoration of the colorblind legal covenant that binds together our multi-racial, multi-ethnic nation."
"The polarizing, stigmatizing and unfair jurisprudence that allowed colleges and universities to use a student's race and ethnicity as a factor to admit or reject them has been overruled. These discriminatory admission practices undermined the integrity of our country's civil rights laws," Blum said.