The Supreme Court is hearing beginning arguments of a case seeking to end the use of affirmative action in university admissions decisions. How the Supreme Court rules could determine whether or not U.S. universities will be allowed to continue to look at race when considering applicants.
Here’s what we know.
What schools are involved
Reuters reported that the admissions policies of two universities are being challenged specifically: Harvard University and the University of North Carolina.
An attorney representing the conservative group Students for Fair Admissions, which is behind both challenges and is attempting to overturn the Supreme Court’s ruling in the 2003 case Grutter v. Bollinger, is being questioned by U.S. Supreme Court justices about how universities would be able to consider a person as a whole in the admissions process without affirmative action.
CNBC reported that the attorney representing Students for Fair Admissions, Patrick Strawbridge, said in his opening statement, “Racial classifications are wrong.”
Per CNN, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote an opinion on affirmative action in 2003, saying, “The Constitution abhors classifications based on race, not only because those classifications can harm favored races or are based on illegitimate motives, but also because every time the government places citizens on racial registers and makes race relevant to the provision of burdens or benefits, it demeans us all.”
North Carolina Solicitor General Ryan Park is defending the admissions process of the University of North Carolina, which includes looking at race in admissions decisions, according to The Washington Post.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor brought to the court’s attention that the 14th Amendment took race into account in order to give Black Americans access to parts of U.S. society that they did not have previously due to slavery, according to CNBC.
“You’re assuming that race is the only factor that gets someone in,” Sotomayor said regarding college admissions procedures.
CNN reported that the National Conference of State Legislatures said that a total of nine states — Arizona, Michigan, Washington, Oklahoma, Florida, California, Nebraska and Idaho — have decided to no longer consider race as a factor in university admissions decisions.
How does this affect affirmative action?
The justices pressed Strawbridge with questions about what “diversity” means and how universities could examine their applicants fairly without affirmative action.
“I thought that part of what it meant to be an American and to believe in American pluralism is that, actually, our institutions are reflective of who we are as a people,” Associate Justice Elena Kagan said.
USA Today reported that Associate Justice Samuel Alito gave Strawbridge a hypothetical scenario of an African immigrant living in the U.S. writing an admissions essay about confronting cultural differences and asked whether that would be permissible without affirmative action.
Strawbridge said that would probably be permitted “because the preference in that case is not being based upon the race, but upon the cultural experiences.”
Sotomayor asked for further clarification on how universities would be able to look at the differences in life experience among applicants fairly.
“If you’re Black, you’re more likely to be in an under resourced school. You are more likely to be taught by teachers who are not as qualified as others, you’re more likely to be viewed as having less acadmeic potential” Sotomayor said, per Reuters.
Strawbridge responded by saying, “The assumption that race necessarily informs something about anyone’s qualifications is antithetical to this court’s precedents and to our Constitution.”