Supreme Court deals major blow to affirmative action in college admissions

by Will Tubbs

Willie R. Tubbs, FISM News


For the second consecutive summer, the Supreme Court has issued a ruling that weakens a long-held Democratic position. 

Thursday, in a 237-page opinion, the court ruled it unlawful for institutions of higher education to consider race as a specific factor in admissions processes, a decision which could have far-reaching effects on affirmative action in other sectors. 

The case, which took in lower court cases involving Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, was decided along ideological lines with all six conservative justices ruling that the universities’ use of race as a determining factor in admissions was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. 

“The Harvard and UNC admissions programs cannot be reconciled with the guarantees of the Equal Protection Clause,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. “Both programs lack sufficiently focused and measurable objectives warranting the use of race, unavoidably employ race in a negative manner, involve racial stereotyping, and lack meaningful end points. We have never permitted admissions programs to work in that way, and we will not do so today.”

It is important to note that the court did not rule that race could not be part of the admissions process. What has ended is a university’s ability to appraise an applicant as more or less worthy of admission using race as a metric. 

A university can still consider race as an element of a student’s “quality of character or unique ability” so long as race is “concretely tied” to those qualities.  

“In other words, the student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual—not on the basis of race,” the opinion reads.

The North Carolina policy was struck down by a 6-3 vote, while the Harvard policy fell by a vote of 6-2. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson recused herself from the Harvard vote as she has ties to the university. 

However, Jackson authored the dissent in the North Carolina ruling and argued eliminating affirmative action in college admissions “detached [the court’s majority]] from this country’s actual past and present experiences.”

She added, “No one benefits from ignorance.” 

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who wrote the dissenting opinion on the Harvard policy, accused her colleagues of forcing their “preferred college application format” on universities and “taking on the role of college administrators to decide what is better for society.”

Sotomayor also voiced skepticism about universities being able to still consider race in other ways on applications. 

“Because the Court cannot escape the inevitable truth that race matters in students’ lives, it announces a false promise to save face and appear attuned to reality,” Sotomayor wrote. “No one is fooled.”


Justice Clarence Thomas, the longest-tenured member of the court, was once the beneficiary of the type of policy he voted against.

“Even in the segregated South where I grew up, individuals were not the sum of their skin color,” Thomas wrote in a concurring opinion. 

Thomas has long discussed the fact that his admission to Yale was thanks to affirmative action, but he has spent decades arguing against the policy. 

“While I am painfully aware of the social and economic ravages which have befallen my race and all who suffer discrimination,” Thomas wrote, “I hold out enduring hope that this country will live up to its principles so clearly enunciated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States: that all men are created equal, are equal citizens, and must be treated equally before the law.”

Jackson does not share such hope and went after Thomas directly in her dissenting opinion, accusing him of harboring “an obsession with race consciousness that far outstrips my or UNC’s holistic understanding that race can be a factor that affects applicants’ unique life experiences.”

“Justice Thomas ignites too many more straw men to list, or fully extinguish, here,” Jackson wrote. “The takeaway is that those who demand that no one think about race … refuse to see, much less solve for, the elephant in the room – the race-linked disparities that continue to impede achievement of our great Nation’s full potential.”

Thomas, never one to shy away from a debate, had strong words for Jackson as well. 

“As she sees things, we are all inexorably trapped in a fundamentally racist society, with the original sin of slavery and the historical subjugation of black Americans still determining our lives today,” Thomas wrote.

Thomas added, “Worse still, Justice Jackson uses her broad observations about statistical relationships between race and select measures of health, wealth, and well-being to label all blacks as victims. Her desire to do so is unfathomable to me.”


It will likely shock no one that conservatives and liberals were split in their reaction to Thursday’s news. 

“College admissions should be based on merit and applicants should not be judged on their race or ethnicity,” presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis tweeted. “The Supreme Court has correctly upheld the Constitution and ended discrimination by colleges and universities.”

Former President Donald Trump was more outspoken in his celebratory remarks. 

“This is a great day for America,” Trump wrote on Truth Social. “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!”

Democrats were substantially less enthusiastic. President Joe Biden, in a muddled series of remarks in the Roosevelt Room, accused the court of walking back “decades of precedent and momentous progress.”

“[For] 45 years, the United States Supreme Court has recognized a college’s freedom to decide how … to build diverse student bodies and to meet their responsibility of opening doors of opportunity for every single American,” Biden said. “In case after case, including recently, just as a few years ago in 2016, the court has affirmed and reaffirmed this view: that colleges could use race not as a determinative factor for admission, but as one of the factors among many in deciding who to admit … from a qualified pool of applicants.”

Biden argued that affirmative action is misunderstood. 

“Many people wrongly believe that affirmative action allows unqualified students — unqualified students — to be admitted ahead of qualified students,” Biden said. “This is not — this is not how college admissions work.

“Rather, colleges set out standards for admission, and every student — every student has to meet those standards. Then, and only then, after first meeting the qualifications required by the school, do colleges look at other factors in addition to their grades, such as race.”

However, the plaintiffs argued the precise opposite in their court case, saying that white and Asian American students were being passed over for less-qualified students based on race. 

“Today, the Supreme Court upheld the 14th Amendment rights of Asian-Americans and ruled that Harvard and the University of North Carolina’s explicit and egregious policies of racially discriminating against Asian-Americans and other students are unconstitutional.” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) tweeted. 

Democrats have argued that Thursday’s ruling is the first step in a series that the fear will end with the total dismantling of affirmative action in all segments of American life. 

“I continue to be troubled by the radical agenda of the conservative justices as they continue to upend … decades of precedent,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) tweeted in a lengthy statement. 

Booker, like Biden, said Democrats would find a way to create admission policies that both adhere to the Supreme Court’s ruling and lead to more minority students being admitted. 

“Colleges must ensure that students of color are not deterred from applying, and have a moral obligation to employ other admissions criteria that may enhance diversity,” Booker tweeted. “It helps to lift everyone.”

Biden recommended using life challenges as a factor, which he reasoned would benefit more people of color. 

“[Universities] should not abandon their commitment to ensure student bodies of diverse backgrounds and experience that reflect all of America,” Biden said. “What I propose for consideration is a new standard, where colleges take into account the adversity a student has overcome when selecting among qualified applicants.

“Let’s be clear: Under this new standard, just as was true under the earlier standard, students first have to be qualified applicants. They need the GPA and test scores to meet the school’s standards. Once that test is met, then adversity should be considered, including … a student’s lack of financial means, because we know too few students of low-income families, whether in big cities or rural communities, are getting an opportunity to go to college.”

Biden added, “When the poor kid — when a poor kid — may be the first in their family to go to college — gets the same grades and test scores as a wealthy kid whose whole family has gone to the most elite colleges in the country and whose path has been a lot easier, well, the kid who faced tougher challenges has demonstrated more grit, more determination. And that should be a factor that colleges should take into account in admissions. And many still do.”