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Supreme Court Restricts Race-Based College Admissions

The US Supreme Court made a significant ruling on Thursday, severely restricting the use of race-based criteria for college admissions. This decision strikes at the core of liberal policies aimed at rectifying historical racial discrimination against nonwhite Americans. With a 6-3 majority vote along ideological lines, the high court found that the practice of using race as a factor in university admissions violates the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law. The ruling was seen as unfair to Asian American and white applicants who were denied university spots due to race-based admission practices.

The case in question, Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, focused on admissions practices at two prominent US universities: Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Both institutions had admission regulations that considered an applicant’s race as a deciding factor.

In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts stated that both programs lacked clear objectives and measurable criteria justifying the use of race. He argued that they inevitably employed race in a negative manner, involved racial stereotyping, and lacked meaningful endpoints. The court emphasized that such admissions programs had never been permitted to function in this manner and would not be allowed to do so now.

Affirmative action, the practice of considering race as a factor in admissions, originated in the 1960s as an effort to address racial discrimination in various areas of society. US presidents Kennedy and Johnson introduced executive orders to combat race-based discrimination in federal government and federal contractor jobs. This response was prompted by the Black civil rights movement’s struggle against racial discrimination, encompassing voting, employment, housing, education, and public services known as “Jim Crow.”

While various civil rights movements sought equality for marginalized groups, including Native Americans, women, and LGBTQ individuals, the implementation of affirmative action practices varied across public institutions. Prior Supreme Court cases had already weakened affirmative action in the US, allowing individual states to prohibit the practice.

However, the recent ruling does not entirely dismiss race-based considerations. The court acknowledged that universities can still consider an applicant’s discussion of how race affected their life, including experiences of discrimination or inspiration. Nevertheless, universities are prohibited from establishing a regime based on unlawful race-based factors, such as through application essays.

The three liberal justices dissented strongly, arguing that the ruling relied on “revisionist history” by citing the Brown v. Board of Education decision that ended racially-exclusive schools in 1954. Justice Sonia Sotomayor criticized the majority’s interpretation of the 14th Amendment, stating that racial inequality remains a reality in society and within institutions like Harvard and UNC, both with a history of racial exclusion. She asserted that ignoring race would not rectify racial inequality and that acknowledging inequality is essential for achieving true equality.

President Joe Biden responded to the ruling by acknowledging the ongoing inequality in the United States, independent of the court’s decision. He emphasized the importance of diversity in college admissions, suggesting that students who have already met objective standards should be evaluated based on the adversity they have faced. Biden aims to ensure that students who have overcome significant challenges and demonstrated determination are not denied admission. Additionally, he directed the US Department of Education to discourage legacy admissions programs, urging colleges to prioritize applicants who are the first in their families to attend college.

When questioned about the court’s legitimacy, Biden responded, “it is not a normal court,” indicating his recognition of the court’s controversial nature and its impact on important decisions.

President Biden emphasized the importance of diversity and proposed measures to address admissions disparities. As the nation grapples with the aftermath of this ruling, the implications for future college admissions policies remain uncertain.

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