US Supreme Court overturns race-conscious admissions

Voting as a block, the five conservative Republican judges of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) have overturned the decades-long practice of race-conscious admissions in American colleges and universities in a case involving Harvard College (Harvard) and the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill.

This decision prevents all public colleges and universities, and any private higher education institution that accepts federal or state funds (including federally insured student loans) from using an admissions process designed to ensure that their student bodies are racially and ethnically diverse and in broad terms represent either the population of the state in which the institution is or, in the case of some elite schools, the United States as a whole.

Race-conscious admissions policies are not quota systems, rather, they give ‘points’ to racial and ethnic minority students whose grades qualify them for admissions.

In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote: “Because Harvard’s and UNC’s admissions programs lack sufficiently focused and measurable objectives warranting the use of race, unavoidably employ race in a negative manner, involving racial stereotyping, and lack meaningful endpoints [ie, at what point race-conscious admissions would no longer be required], those admissions programs cannot be reconciled with the Equal Protection Clause [of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution].”

In his concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas, who since a 2003 case in which the court upheld race-conscious admissions, has consistently opposed race-conscious admission policies, said: “Today, and despite a lengthy interregnum, the Constitution prevails.”

His concurring opinion offers “an originalist defence of the colour-blind Constitution; to explain further the flaws of the Court’s Grutter jurisprudence; to clarify that all forms of discrimination based on race – including so-called affirmative action – are prohibited under the Constitution; and to emphasise the pernicious effects of all such discrimination.” (‘Grutter’ refers to the case of Grutter v Bollinger.)

Court watchers had been expecting this decision since the oral arguments were heard at the end of October.

“I wouldn’t say this was a surprise,” says Jessie Brown, senior vice president and chief of staff at the Washington DC-based American Council on Education. “We listened to the five hours of oral arguments back on Halloween. For a lot of us who have been following this line of cases for a long time, you could count up the votes and listen to the questions and see where the justices were going.”

Reaction to the court’s decision to gut race-conscious admissions was swift and broke along party lines.

Republican right hails the ruling

On his media platform Truth Social, former president and present candidate for the Republican nomination in 2024 Donald J Trump said: “People with extraordinary ability and everything else necessary for success, including future greatness for our country, are finally being rewarded.

“This is the ruling everyone was waiting and hoping for and the result was amazing.

“It will also keep us competitive with the rest of the world. Our greatest minds must be cherished and that’s what this wonderful day has brought. We’re going back to all merit-based – and that’s the way it should be!”

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