Affirmative action at US colleges rejected: Is SCOTUS right?


Fact Box

  • On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court ruled against affirmative action programs for Harvard University and the University of North Carolina in a 6-3 decision, which were used to increase the number of Black, Hispanic, and minority students in American colleges. 
  • The 14th Amendment was added to the US Constitution in 1868, with a guarantee of “equal protection” of citizens under the law. 
  • In the 1960s, ‘Affirmative action’ first began under the US federal government to “increase employment and educational opportunities for minority groups and women” who faced legal discrimination. Policies have provided opportunities that include job hiring, college admissions, government contracts, and other benefits. 
  • Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which barred segregation and discrimination. The following year, President Lyndon B. Johnson updated the law (EO 11375) to include women as a protected class. 
  • An October 2022 YouGov poll found that 54% of Americans agreed that “colleges and universities should not consider an applicant's race in order to further student body diversity in higher education.”

The SCOTUS decision to abolish affirmative action is a major win for America in taking the next right step in 'eliminating all' legal discrimination, including that which was formally accepted by society. In college admissions, that meant rejecting qualified and selecting unqualified applicants based on race over ranking.  

This decision promotes true equality by leveling the playing field for all individuals, regardless of race or ethnicity, as it creates a more merit-based admissions system in which individual qualifications precede other factors, as they should in a just society. For a democracy that values human rights and equality, it's obvious how affirmative action violates the rights of students who are treated differently simply because of their race. Scrapping it brings America closer to the colorblind society promised under the 14th Amendment, in which opportunities are determined by ability and qualifications rather than race and background.

Affirmative action may also inadvertently propagate stereotypes that undermine the capabilities of minority groups. For example, this tweet by a Democrat operative insinuates that Black people cannot succeed in a meritocracy. Doing away with legal discrimination means minorities are encouraged to work even harder to achieve success based on their own merits without relying on affirmative action policies. It also ensures that their achievements are not downplayed and they receive due credit for their hard work and accomplishments.

The move will also help reduce racial tension, which is prevalent in American higher learning institutions, by removing the perception of racism against more prevalent ethnicities. Institutions will find alternative ways to promote diversity, such as considering socioeconomic status or geographic diversity, to create a diverse student body without offering preferential treatment. However, it’s good the Court recognized a simple truth: “two discriminatory wrongs do not make a right.”  

Upon hearing the news that SCOTUS ended decades of affirmative action in university admissions, Biden was right to acknowledge the truth: 'Discrimination still exists in America. Today's decision does not change that. It's a simple fact.' As Democrats proclaim, diversity is our strength. Therefore, taking into account a college applicant's race moves us forward into a more progressive and equitable society, where everyone is given an equal footing to pursue their higher education goals. 

Former President Obama said in a statement that affirmative action 'allowed generations of students like Michelle and me to prove we belonged.' Similarly, Michelle accredits the race-based policies taken by colleges as helping prove that she 'belonged' and 'helped offer new ladders of opportunity for those who, throughout our history, have too often been denied a chance to show how fast they can climb.' 

Even recently-appointed SCOTUS Justice, Ketanji Brown Jackson, is a result of affirmative action on the federal level. Jackson joined the court in June 2022 after Biden specifically announced earlier that year that he would aim to fill the seat with 'the first Black woman ever nominated.' Having risen through the ivy league schooling system herself, Jackson had much to say about the gutting of affirmative action from colleges. In her dissenting opinion, Jackson expounded on the 'universal benefits of considering race,' claiming that America 'has never been colorblind,' and 'given our history, the origin of persistent race-linked gaps should be no mystery.' She would be right. Race matters in the 'lived experience' of Americans even if 'legal barriers are gone.' The actions that would have given hopeful students of color the equal playing field needed to get ahead in higher education has now been stripped away.

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