The newly conservative Supreme Court is at it again.
First, they dismantled the historical precedent set by Roe v. Wade. Due to their decision, millions of women no longer have the right to access safe and local abortion care.
And now, they’re poised to overturn another major court case, Grutter v. Bollinger, when they hear oral arguments for two related cases this fall.
The cases of Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. UNC and Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. Harvard argue that affirmative action in college admissions is unconstitutional. The plaintiff claims that when selective universities are allowed to consider race in their college admission decisions, Asian Americans are unjustly discriminated against in favor of Black and Latinx applicants.
But before we can understand how massive of an effect The Supreme Court’s decision could have on college diversity, we must understand what affirmative action is and how it has helped Black and Latinx students gain admission to the colleges and universities that have historically excluded them.
What is Affirmative Action?
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s challenged every part of American culture. Black citizens, who had faced monumental oppression at the hands of white Americans for centuries, began fighting for fair and equal treatment under the law. And legislators on both sides of the aisle supported their efforts
By 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, which ended legal segregation around the country. A short year later, the Voting Rights Act was passed to protect minority voting rights. And in 1968, discrimination on the basis of race was outlawed in housing decisions by the Fair Housing Act.
With all these massive changes sweeping across the nation, faculty at some of the most prestigious universities — such as Harvard, Yale, and Columbia — began voluntarily implementing what are now known as affirmative action policies.
Selective universities and colleges, until this point, had been exclusively white. Following guidance issued by President Nixon for federal employees and contractors, these schools began considering race when making their admission decisions.
Educators like the current president of Columbia University Lee Bollinger, believed “that universities had to do their part to help integrate higher education.”
And integrate higher education they did. By 1969, many selective colleges and universities admitted 2x as many Black students as they had just the year before. Half of these students would go on to graduate with their degrees in hand.
These graduates would later become doctors, powerful executives, and lawyers. Even the first Black U.S. Attorney General, Eric H. Holder Jr, was admitted to Harlem’s Columbia University under these new affirmative action policies.
Affirmative action and race-conscious college admissions allowed generations of Black and Latinx students to achieve greater economic security and professional success: success that they had been denied based only on the color of their skin.
Attacks on Affirmative Action
Race-conscious admissions have done exactly what they were intended to. They drastically increased diversity at highly selective Universities around the country.
But that fact has not stopped the policy from facing its fair share of backlash. Just two years after colleges started considering race as a factor in their admissions, the practice was challenged in court. A white student named Marco DeFuni sued the University of Washington in 1971. He claimed that he was rejected from the school because of “reverse racism”. Though his case was ultimately dismissed, decades of various legal challenges followed.
Just this year, The Supreme Court agreed to hear twin cases filed by Students for Fair Admissions Inc. The lawsuits argue that it is unconstitutional for universities to consider race when admitting students into their programs. In the case of both SFFA vs. Harvard, and SFFA vs. The University of North Carolina, they also claim that ending affirmative action across the country will help improve diversity on college campuses despite a body of research saying otherwise.
When the state of California banned affirmative action in 1996, enrollment numbers for Black and Latinx students plummeted. In two years, the percentage of Black students enrolled at UCLA dropped from 7.13% to 3.43%. Latinx students faired far worse. In the same period, the number of Latinx students dropped over 11 percentage points — from 21.58% to 10.45%.
Both the UCLA and Berkeley campuses tried implementing multiple policies to increase campus diversity after affirmative action was outlawed. UC officials tried to increase outreach to low-income students, offer more admissions guarantees, and in 2020 even moved to stop requiring SAT and ACT test scores. But none of these initiatives increased diversity to the same levels as affirmative action¹.
This November, The Supreme Court will hear arguments in both of Students For Fair Admissions cases. Now that SCOTUS has a conservative majority, it is quite likely the justices will outlaw affirmative action across all 50 states.
Regardless of the results of this case, we must advocate for broad reform of our public education system. Despite the best intentioned initiatives by universities, there will never be true equality in higher education until all U.S. students get a high-quality education every step of the way — no matter where they live, how much money their families make, or the color of their skin.
The New York Times – “Affirmative Action Was Banned at Two Top Universities. They Say They Need It”