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Affirmative Action: How To Move On Post-Ruling

Written by Andrew Hermann

Edited by Annika Lilja

Image Credit: CT Mirror

On June 29, 2023, American legal history etched a new chapter as the Supreme Court delivered a groundbreaking verdict – striking down race-based affirmative action, also known as race-conscious admissions policies. This ruling has implications for renowned institutions like Harvard College, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as well as all colleges across the nation. At the forefront of this legal battle stood Edward Blum and Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), who challenged Harvard College's race-conscious admissions policies for allegedly disproportionately affecting Asian American applicants. Remarkably, this year's admitted class at Harvard featured a diverse blend of ethnicities: 22.7% Asian American, 15.5% African American, 12.2% Latinx, and 2% Native American. This enrollment marked a milestone, representing the first time a majority of Harvard's admitted students were people of color. Yet, even within these esteemed halls, racial disparities persist. Madison Trice, a Harvard student and fervent supporter of affirmative action, noted in a 2018 article that many Black students “were excluded from on-campus study groups inherited by their white counterparts.” As an African-American Harvard graduate, who is also a member of the Association of Black Harvard Women, Trice provides a nuanced and authentic thought process surrounding affirmative action's role in fostering inclusivity and diversity within student bodies.


The Supreme Court's ruling not only upended longstanding precedents but signaled a pivotal juncture in the evolution of affirmative action. To truly comprehend the gravity of this decision, an exploration of both majority and minority opinions is essential, accompanied by an examination of the historical trajectory of affirmative action at institutions like Harvard and UNC. Understanding this historical context provides invaluable insight into the rationale behind their race-conscious admissions policies. Harvard and UNC, institutions grappling with histories of exclusion spanning over a century, embarked on a transformative journey in the 1960s and 70s – embracing diversity as a corrective measure for past injustices. Their affirmative action policies aimed to break down entrenched barriers that had historically disadvantaged BIPOC students. As societal dynamics, legal challenges, and evolving notions of diversity shaped the landscape, both institutions adapted their affirmative action commitments over time.


Chief Justice John Marshall's majority opinion underscored the principle of colorblindness—an ideology advocating that the most effective approach to eradicating discrimination is to treat all individuals equally in admissions.. Marshall's argument relied upon the fact that affirmative action, initially conceived to rectify historical wrongs and enhance diversity, had fulfilled its purpose. He cautioned against the risk of perpetuating reverse discrimination, by potentially favoring individuals belonging to minority groups known to have been discriminated against previously, which he deemed contrary to the Equal Protection Clause under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. It's noteworthy that this ruling specifically pertained to race-based affirmative action; socio-economic-based and other forms of affirmative action remained untouched. The majority contended that continuing to factor race into admissions could lead to unequal treatment of applicants, potentially undermining the merit-based foundation of education. Justice Clarence Thomas, himself a beneficiary of affirmative action, aligned with the majority despite his personal experience. He voiced concerns about how race-based affirmative action might inadvertently generate a sense of inadequacy among students of color, casting doubt on the merit-driven nature of their admissions.


In stark contrast, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson delivered a fervent dissenting opinion, highlighting affirmative action's pivotal role in fostering diversity and addressing systemic inequities. She argued that the majority's decision overlooked the persistent impacts of historical discrimination, failing to recognize its profound influence on education. Justice Brown Jackson contended that dismantling race-conscious admissions would curtail campus diversity, depriving institutions of the opportunity to offer students a rich platform for personal and intellectual growth. Jackson wrote, “The best that can be said of the majority’s perspective is that it proceeds from the hope that preventing consideration of race will end racism. But if that is its motivation, the majority proceeds in vain.” These strong words effectively capture her belief that the majority's position, which in Justice Brown Jackson’s words claims that eliminating racial factors would end racism, ultimately, could be considered as a contributing factor to racism in the college admissions process.


The Supreme Court's decision to strike down race-conscious admissions policies resonates far beyond the walls of prestigious educational institutions. It challenges the very bedrock of affirmative action, potentially reshaping the landscape of diversity and inclusion within academic settings. The ruling's ripple effects are poised to reshape student demographics, impacting intercultural interactions and influencing broader discussions surrounding race and opportunity.


 

Sources:


ACLU. “What You Need to Know about Affirmative Action at the Supreme Court: ACLU.” American Civil Liberties Union, 27 June 2023, www.aclu.org/news/racial-justice/what-you-need-to-know-about-affirmative-action-at-the-supreme-court. Accessed 09 Aug. 2023.


Dirks, Sandhya. “Affirmative Action Divided Asian Americans and Other People of Color. Here’s How.” NPR, 2 July 2023, www.npr.org/2023/07/02/1183981097/affirmative-action-asian-americans-poc. Accessed 09 Aug. 2023.


Totenberg, Nina. “Supreme Court Guts Affirmative Action, Effectively Ending Race-Conscious Admissions.” NPR, 29 June 2023, www.npr.org/2023/06/29/1181138066/affirmative-action-supreme-court-decision. Accessed 09 Aug. 2023.


Trice, Madison. “The Affirmative Action Lawsuit against Harvard Isn’t Really about Fairness.” Why SFFA Harvard Affirmative Action Suit Is Dangerous, www.refinery29.com/en-us/harvard-affirmative-action-lawsuit. Accessed 09 Aug. 2023.

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