The United States Supreme Court has ruled that colleges must stop considering race as a factor in their admission policies, dealing a setback to so-called “affirmative action” efforts aimed at boosting the enrolment of Black and Latino students at top universities.
The top court’s decision on Thursday came in response to lawsuits that challenged the policies of Harvard University and the University of North Carolina (UNC) by claiming race-conscious student admissions programmes discriminate against white and Asian-American applicants.
The ruling is the latest by the conservative-dominated court to advance right-wing political causes, and it could have significant implications for US college enrolment and diversity on campuses across the country.
President Joe Biden decried the court’s decision on Thursday, calling on universities to continue to advance diversity in spite of the ruling, by considering race-related factors like adversity.
“I’ve always believed that the promise of America is big enough for everyone to succeed, and that every generation of Americans – we have benefited by opening the doors of opportunity just a little bit wider to include those who’ve been left behind,” Biden told reporters.
He stressed that the top court bucked precedents – previous rulings that establish legal norms – in its decision on Thursday. “We cannot let this decision be the last word on it,” Biden said.
Asked whether the Supreme Court is “rogue”, Biden said it is not a “normal” court.
The top court ultimately found affirmative action to be in violation of US Constitution provisions that establish equal protection under the law.
“College admissions are zero-sum. A benefit provided to some applicants but not to others necessarily advantages the former group at the expense of the latter,” the Supreme Court said in its decision, embracing the argument that affirmative action benefitting some minority students disadvantages others.
The vote was six-to-three in the UNC case and six-to-two in the Harvard case, with Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson recusing herself from the latter because she had been a member of an advisory governing board at the university.
In a dissenting opinion, liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that “indifference to race” does not advance equality, stressing that racial inequality continues to prevail in the US, including at UNC and Harvard.
“Ignoring race will not equalize a society that is racially unequal. What was true in the 1860s, and again in 1954, is true today: Equality requires acknowledgment of inequality,” she said, referring to the US Civil War that ended slavery and the Civil Rights movement, respectively.
The NAACP civil rights advocacy group was quick to denounce the top court’s ruling on Thursday.
“This is a dark day in America,” Wisdom Cole, national director of the group’s youth and college division, said in a statement.
“Affirmative action has been a beacon of hope for generations of Black students. It stood as a powerful force against the insidious poison of racism and sexism, aiming to level the playing field and provide a fair shot at a high-quality education for all.”
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer also decried the decision, calling it a “giant roadblock” in the country’s march towards racial justice.