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Divided Supreme Court Outlaws Affirmative Action in College Admissions, Says Race Can't Be Used

Activists demonstrate as the Supreme Court hears oral arguments on a pair of cases that could decide the future of affirmative action in college admissions, in Washington, Oct. 31, 2022.
Activists demonstrate as the Supreme Court hears oral arguments on a pair of cases that could decide the future of affirmative action in college admissions, in Washington, Oct. 31, 2022.

The United States Supreme Court issued a divisive ruling on Thursday, striking down affirmative action in college admissions and declaring that race cannot be a factor in the decision-making process. This landmark decision has significant implications for higher education institutions, forcing them to explore new methods of achieving diversity in their student bodies.

The court's conservative majority effectively overturned decades of legal precedent by invalidating admissions plans at two prestigious institutions: Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. Both colleges have long utilized race-conscious admissions policies to promote campus diversity.

This ruling aligns with a long-standing conservative legal goal of dismantling affirmative action. The majority opinion argues that race-conscious admissions plans violate the Constitution and law applicable to federally funded institutions, encompassing nearly all colleges and universities in the country.

Colleges and universities, especially top-tier institutions, will now be required to reshape their admissions practices. The consideration of race as a factor in admissions, a cornerstone of affirmative action policies, will no longer be permissible.

Chief Justice John Roberts, delivering the majority opinion, criticized universities for prioritizing race over individual achievements. He stated, "For too long, universities have wrongly concluded that the touchstone of an individual's identity is not challenged bested, skills built, or lessons learned but the color of their skin. Our constitutional history does not tolerate that choice."

President Joe Biden swiftly disagreed with the Supreme Court's ruling, urging colleges and universities to pursue alternative approaches to achieving diversity. Biden emphasized that this ruling should be a partial word on the matter, and institutions should continue their commitment to fostering student bodies that reflect America's diverse backgrounds and experiences.

The ruling also highlighted the deep divisions within the Supreme Court, particularly among the three justices of color. Justice Clarence Thomas, the nation's second Black justice, who has long called for an end to affirmative action, wrote, "The decision sees the universities' admissions policies for what they are: rudderless, race-based preferences designed to ensure a particular racial mix in their entering classes."

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the court's first Latina justice, expressed strong dissent, stating that the ruling "rolls back decades of precedent and momentous progress." Notably, Thomas and Sotomayor, who acknowledged that affirmative action played a role in their own college and law school admissions, delivered oral summaries of their dissenting opinions in the courtroom, a rare occurrence.

The ruling received a vote of 6-3 in the North Carolina case and 6-2 in the Harvard case, with Justice Elena Kagan joining the dissenters. This decision will undoubtedly compel universities nationwide to reassess their admissions practices, particularly those top schools considering race as part of their holistic review processes.

In response to the court's ruling, many college presidents swiftly issued statements affirming their commitment to diversity and the pursuit of alternative methods to achieve it. While the impact of this ruling remains uncertain, these institutions expressed their intention to continue working towards inclusive student bodies that reflect the diverse fabric of American society.

As colleges and universities grapple with the aftermath of this ruling, it remains to be seen how they will adapt their admissions practices to ensure diversity while adhering to the new legal framework. The journey towards an equitable and inclusive higher education system continues, albeit with a recalibration of strategies and approaches without race-conscious admissions policies.

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