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In a surprising decision that sent ripple waves through our nation, the Supreme Court ended affirmative action programs at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina in what is bound to have long-term implications in higher education and beyond.
With the final vote of 6-3 in the UNC case and 6-2 in the Harvard case, the court ruled that both affirmative action programs violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution and are therefore deemed unlawful. The court’s six conservative justices declared that race can no longer be used as a factor in the decision-making process of higher education. In the majority decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts, he stated:
“Many universities have for too long… 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 opinion of the majority, in short, crystalized what so many falsely believe — that Black people are admitted into colleges and universities not because of their academic merit, but simply because of the color of their skin. That assertion is erroneous at best and dangerous at worst.
Additionally, in agreement with the majority was Justice Clarence Thomas. One would think that since Justice Thomas’ own appointment to the Supreme Court bench was heralded as one of the biggest affirmative action hires of his generation, he would take a different position, but it appears that irrespective of the topic, Justice Thomas never misses an opportunity to “shuck and jive.” Furthermore, it would be more sensical if Justice Thomas were concerned by the recent allegations against his wife, Ginni Thomas, who is being accused of undermining our democracy by attempting to influence elected officials to overturn the 2020 election results. Nevertheless, it appears that Justice Thomas believes Black students receiving a higher education is the bigger threat to our democracy than the alleged acts by his spouse. I digress.
The truth of the matter is that what this ruling does is create a fake Utopian society that our nation does not uphold. A Utopian society where we are to falsely believe the words etched into our Constitution, that “All men are created equal.” This very decision by the Supreme Court shows they want us to believe that when it comes to education, race is irrelevant and does not have a determinative factor when that is simply untrue. Furthermore, with this decision, we are urged to believe America is a country where racism and discrimination do not exist when we know that is categorically false. Just three years ago, we watched in horror as George Floyd was murdered at the hands of police officers, and Black Lives Matter protests swept the nation. Just months ago, we saw how the majority Black LSU women’s basketball team was villainized while the majority white Iowa women’s basketball team was lauded — a clear example of how whiteness is upheld in this country while Blackness is often punished. Whether we want to admit it or not, race matters and in America, race has always mattered. Race plays a factor in how we as people are not only treated, but perceived. The Supreme Court removing race from the college admissions process while the nation is still fighting for racial equality is a blatant slap in the face to us as a people.
As an educator, let me be the first to say that the court’s decision should not be taken lightly. With the Supreme Court ruling, it is important to note the difference between race-conscious and race-based admissions. The media has falsely portrayed affirmative action in higher education as admission solely based on one or two qualifying factors. In reality, affirmative action based on race is more so a conscious effort to create an environment at the higher education level where classrooms and campuses reflect the cultural and societal differences seen within our nation. Race-conscious admission is an effort to balance the demographics of the classroom.
For example, if a Black person is admitted to an institution of higher learning, that does not mean they were accepted solely because of the color of their skin. Rather, the grades and test scores of the Black student are on par, if not higher than their white counterparts. Being race conscious serves as a check-point for the college admission committee to ask, “Do we have qualified candidates who are non-white who we can admit as well?” The operative word being “qualified.” There are no handouts when it comes to admission in higher education. Matter of fact, during the process, it is frowned upon to accept students who are not able to meet the academic rigor of the institution and who may eventually leave the program. Furthermore, what we know to be true is that white women have historically been the greatest beneficiaries of affirmative action. Therefore, the theory that Black students are somehow “less qualified” or “do not belong” is merely a trope that the Conservative movement has utilized to weaken support for affirmative action.
Research has found that diversity not only enriches the educational experience of the student body, but also equips scholars with the necessary tools and competencies needed to be better citizens and community leaders. The court’s decision turns a blind eye to the long history of racial discrimination in our country and significantly sets back the efforts of our ancestors who fought and died for equality in education. We can see firsthand the potential impact of such a decision by looking at individual states. In California, for example, a referendum eradicated the use of race in the college admission process and as a result, the number of Black students accepted immediately declined in schools like UC Berkeley.
What is surprising about the court’s decision is the specific focus on the use of race in affirmative action. When we look at elite U.S. institutions and their admissions process, what is often not discussed are these institutions’ legacy clauses. A legacy clause (or legacy preference) is the ability for children of alumni to be granted admission because their family member is a graduate of the institution or a financial donor. Unlike affirmative action, those students who are accepted solely because of their legacy status are not required to meet the academic standards of the institution. For example, a student with a low GPA and low standardized test scores, who would not normally be accepted into the college, would be if they have a family member who is an alumnus or donor. The admission committee is urged to “strongly consider their application.” While the legacy clause is not 100 percent, it does beg the question of why the Supreme Court struck down the use of race when a candidate meets all the academic requirements, but failed to include the use of the legacy clause when those candidates do not necessarily meet those academic prerequisites. Could it be that since white men and women are the largest beneficiaries of the legacy clause, the Supreme Court chose to turn a blind eye to this admission loophole?
The ruling to end race-based admission policies at colleges and universities is not the end, but rather the beginning of the dismantling of decadeslong efforts to ensure equity and inclusion within our educational institutions. If affirmative action is removed from higher education, then it is only a matter of time before this same approach is adopted in the workplace. We are currently witnessing the end of an era. However, all hope is not lost. It is incumbent upon all of us to make sure we are registered to vote because now, if never before, we see the direct impact of the election on our daily lives. No, we did not elect the justices who made this decision, but our votes decided the 2016 president who appointed three of the nine Supreme Court justices – the most by any president since Ronald Reagan, who appointed four, and the most by any one-term president.
The Supreme Court decision, although disheartening, should not stop us from fighting for what is right. We as a people have faced setbacks before, but that has never stopped us. Now, more than ever, our voices need to be heard. There is too much at stake and we have come too far to turn back now.
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