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US Supreme Court Strikes Down Affirmative Action, Barring California Private Universities From Considering Race in Admissions

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Supporters of affirmative action hold signs and rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. One sign says: 'We won't go back.'
Supporters of affirmative action protest outside of the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC on Thursday, June 29, 2023. The high court on Thursday struck down affirmative action in college admissions decisions, ruling that race cannot be a factor, forcing institutions of higher education to look for new ways to achieve diverse student bodies. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling (PDF) barring colleges from considering race in admissions effectively outlaws affirmative action at California’s private universities, broadly expanding a ban that had previously only applied to the state’s public campuses.

In Thursday’s 6-3 decision, the court’s conservative majority invalidated race-conscious admissions policies at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, the nation’s oldest private and public colleges, respectively, finding them in violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection. The historic ruling overturns a spate of cases reaching back nearly half a century and will force the nation’s private and public universities to dramatically alter how they select their students.

Writing for the court’s majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said that for too long universities 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.”

“The entire point of the Equal Protection Clause is that treating someone differently because of their skin color is not like treating them differently because they are from a city or from a suburb, or because they play the violin poorly or well,” Roberts said.

The decision, bringing a long-sought conservative goal to fruition, comes nearly 30 years after California voters passed Proposition 209, which prohibited the state’s public universities — including those in the University of California and California State University systems — from considering race and gender in admissions and hiring decisions. But that law did not apply to the state’s private colleges, including University of San Francisco, Stanford and Santa Clara universities, who until now have continued to consider race as a factor in admissions.

Leaders of numerous private colleges across California were quick to denounce the court’s decision, calling it a major setback to efforts aimed at diversifying campuses and to expand opportunities for underrepresented student populations.

“The ruling is quite disturbing and really quite challenging to us,” said Rev. Paul Fitzgerald, president of the University of San Francisco. “We’ve spent decades building out an academic program to welcome a student population that looks like the future of our nation. To be told now that we cannot use race as a particular factor is going to cause us to think very hard to figure out a way to continue our mission.”

Fitzgerald noted his school has worked to draw communities that are historically underrepresented on college campuses, including outreach at high schools that serve primarily Black, Latino or Indigenous students.

The court’s ruling was the culmination of a lawsuit first brought against Harvard in 2014 when a group called Students for Fair Admissions argued the university’s consideration of race in admission decisions unfairly discriminated against Asian students. The group made a similar argument in its subsequent suit against the University of North Carolina.

People with the Asian American Coalition for Education rally outside of the Supreme Court of the United States in Washington, DC on June 29, 2023.
Members of the Asian American Coalition for Education, who oppose affirmative action in college admissions decisions, rally outside of the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC on June 29, 2023. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Stanford threw its support behind the school’s affirmative action policies, and last August submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court outlining how race is just one element the university considers when reviewing applications.

“These factors, among numerous others and viewed in the context of the entire application, may sometimes shed light on the critical questions of a candidate’s ability to deal with adversity and make the most of the opportunities that the University offers,” Stanford’s brief (PDF) reads.

In an email to students and faculty on Thursday, Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne said he was “deeply disappointed” by the court’s decision, arguing it would hinder his school’s efforts to build a more diverse student body.

“The ability to consider race as one part of a holistic review of each applicant has helped to foster a campus environment at Stanford that is diverse in many ways, where people of varied backgrounds and experiences are able to learn from one another and contribute to the creation of knowledge,” he wrote.

Supporters of affirmative action bans, which have already been enacted to some degree in nine states — including California — say the practice is racially discriminatory and does little to increase economic mobility for the lowest-income students.

But until now, the high court has consistently preserved race-conscious admission practices, upholding affirmative action in two separate challenges over the last 20 years.

That departure was underscored in Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s biting dissent.

“With let-them-eat-cake obliviousness, today, the majority pulls the ripcord and announces ‘colorblindness for all’ by legal fiat,” she wrote. “But deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life.”

Since banning affirmative action in 1996, the University of California has spent more than $500 million on programs aimed at recruiting and graduating lower-income students and students who are first in their family to attend college.

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The UC system also started a program that guarantees admission to the top 9% of students in each high school across the state, an attempt to attract strong students from diverse backgrounds.

But those efforts have not had the success many had hoped for. By 1998, just two years after the state ban went into effect, Black and Hispanic enrollment fell dramatically at UC Berkeley and UCLA, the system’s two most selective campuses.

“Particularly at UC’s most selective campuses, feelings of racial isolation persist and hinder UC’s efforts to provide the educational benefits of diversity,” the University of California wrote (PDF) in a brief submitted to the Supreme Court, urging it to uphold affirmative action policies. “Second, UC’s student population at many of its campuses is now starkly different, demographically speaking, from the population of California high school graduates. That raises concerns that UC is not enrolling sufficient students with diverse perspectives, and that it will not be perceived as open to, and welcoming of, all students across the State — which in turn threatens its legitimacy in the eyes of citizens of California.”

In the wake of the court’s decision on Thursday, President Joe Biden and Gov. Gavin Newsom expressed similar concerns.

“Right-wing activists — including those donning robes — are trying to take us back to the era of book bans and segregated campuses,” Newsom said in a press statement. “While the path to equal opportunity has now been narrowed for millions of students, no court case will ever shatter the California Dream. Our campus doors remain open for all who want to work hard — and our commitment to diversity, equity, and equal opportunity has never been stronger.”

Meanwhile, a host of progressive organizations in California that focus on racial and economic justice for Asian Americans lambasted the decision as an attack on racial diversity and opportunity.

“For Asian American students and all others, racially diverse student bodies both enhance their learning and foster understanding of each student’s lived experience,” Connie Chung Joe, CEO of Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California, said in a press statement. “In our ever-changing global economy and platform, we must continue to give all students the opportunity to fulfill their potential and shape a future built strong on our biggest asset — our diversity.”

And San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu said that affirmative action policies have helped people like him have opportunities that may not have otherwise been possible.

“I am an Asian American Harvard graduate, who would not be in a public policy career but for an affirmative action program,” Chiu said in a press statement following the decision Tuesday. We know that students at more diverse campuses benefit academically and socially.”

The court’s decision, he added, “is simply another attempt to roll back civil rights and the progress made in recent years.”



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