As largely expected, the U.S. Supreme Court has just announced its decision to bar affirmative action in higher education, declaring the use of race as a factor in college admissions a violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
Universities have defended race-based admissions as a mechanism to ensure diverse student bodies. Critics, however, argue such policy discriminates against many qualified students based on race.
Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), an activist group, filed lawsuits against Harvard and the University of North Carolina, accusing them of violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in any program or activity that receives Federal funds or other Federal financial assistance.”
The Harvard case claimed that the school’s practices disadvantaged Asian American students and that the school did not implement race-neutral practices. The UNC case questioned the university’s refusal to adopt non-race-based practices without demonstrating their potential to lower academic quality or negatively affect the benefits of campus diversity.
A tense debate characterized the affirmative action cases at the Supreme Court, with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito challenging Harvard’s lawyer, Seth Waxman. Alito expressed his frustration over Waxman’s evasion of questions concerning the disparity in personal scores given to Asian students, stating, “I still haven’t heard any explanation for the disparity between the personal scores that are given to Asians.”
Waxman and Roberts had a particularly heated exchange. Roberts challenged Waxman’s dismissal of race as a factor in admissions decisions, questioning, “why Waxman was downplaying race as a factor in admissions decisions, when according to Roberts it must have some impact, or else it would not be included.”
Waxman conceded that race could be decisive “for some highly qualified applicants,” comparing it to “being … an oboe player in a year in which the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra needs an oboe player.” In a sharp response, Roberts countered, “We did not fight a civil war about oboe players. We did fight a civil war to eliminate racial discrimination.”
Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson excused herself from the Harvard case due to her previous role on Harvard’s Board of Overseers. Overall, this sets a significant precedent for the American education system.