Breaking from long-standing precedent, the US Supreme Court on Thursday overturned affirmative action in college admissions. The court ruled in two related cases, one involving Harvard University, the other involving the University of North Carolina.
Here are some key quotes from the majority opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts, concurring opinions from Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh, and dissenting opinions from Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson.
“Eliminating racial discrimination means eliminating all of it.”
“For the reasons provided above, the Harvard and UNC admissions programs cannot be reconciled with the guarantees of the Equal Protection Clause [of the 14th Amendment]. 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.”
“The student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual — not on the basis of race. Many universities have for too long done just the opposite. And in doing so, they have concluded, wrongly, that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned but the color of their skin. Our constitutional history does not tolerate that choice.
Justice Gorsuch (concurring)
“For many students, an acceptance letter from Harvard or the University of North Carolina is a ticket to a brighter future. Tens of thousands of applicants compete for a small number of coveted spots. For some time, both universities have decided which applicants to admit or reject based in part on race. Today, the Court holds that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment does not tolerate this practice. I write to emphasize that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not either.”
Justice Thomas (concurring)
“I write separately to offer an originalist defense of the colorblind Constitution ... to clarify that all forms of discrimination based on race — including so-called affirmative action — are prohibited under the Constitution; and to emphasize the pernicious effects of all such discrimination.”
“The solution to our Nation’s racial problems thus cannot come from policies grounded in affirmative action or some other conception of equity. Racialism simply cannot be undone by different or more racialism. Instead, the solution ... is incorporated in our Constitution: that we are all equal, and should be treated equally before the law without regard to our race. Only that promise can allow us to look past our differing skin colors and identities and see each other for what we truly are: individuals with unique thoughts, perspectives, and goals, but with equal dignity and equal rights under the law.”
Justice Kavanaugh (concurring)
“To be clear, although progress has been made since [previous decisions by the court allowing race-conscious admissions], racial discrimination still occurs and the effects of past racial discrimination still persist. Federal and state civil rights laws serve to deter and provide remedies for current acts of racial discrimination. And governments and universities still ‘can, of course, act to undo the effects of past discrimination in many permissible ways that do not involve classification by race.’”
Justice Sotomayor (dissenting)
“Although progress has been slow and imperfect, race-conscious college admissions policies have advanced the Constitution’s guarantee of equality.”
“Today, this Court stands in the way and rolls back decades of precedent and momentous progress. It holds that race can no longer be used in a limited way in college admissions to achieve such critical benefits. In so holding, the Court cements a superficial rule of colorblindness as a constitutional principle in an endemically segregated society where race has always mattered and continues to matter. The Court subverts the constitutional guarantee of equal protection by further entrenching racial inequality in education.”
“The devastating impact of this decision cannot be overstated. ... Notwithstanding this Court’s actions, however, society’s progress toward equality cannot be permanently halted. Diversity is now a fundamental American value, housed in our varied and multicultural American community that only continues to grow. The pursuit of racial diversity will go on.”
Justice Jackson (dissenting)
“Gulf-sized race-based gaps exist with respect to the health, wealth, and well-being of American citizens. They were created in the distant past, but have indisputably been passed down to the present day through the generations. Every moment these gaps persist is a moment in which this great country falls short of actualizing one of its foundational principles — the “self-evident” truth that all of us are created equal. Yet, today, the Court determines that holistic admissions programs like the one that the University of North Carolina (UNC) has operated ... are a problem with respect to achievement of that aspiration, rather than a viable solution (as has long been evident to historians, sociologists, and policymakers alike).”
“With let-them-eat-cake obliviousness, today, the majority pulls the ripcord and announces ‘colorblindness for all’ by legal fiat. But deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life.”
“No one benefits from ignorance. Although formal race-linked legal barriers are gone, race still matters to the lived experiences of all Americans in innumerable ways, and today’s ruling makes things worse, not better. The best that can be said of the majority’s perspective is that it proceeds (ostrich-like) from the hope that preventing consideration of race will end racism. But if that is its motivation, the majority proceeds in vain. If the colleges of this country are required to ignore a thing that matters, it will not just go away. It will take longer for racism to leave us. And, ultimately, ignoring race just makes it matter more.”
“The only way out of this morass—for all of us—is to stare at racial disparity unblinkingly, and then do what evidence and experts tell us is required to level the playing field and march forward together, collectively striving to achieve true equality for all Americans. It is no small irony that the judgment the majority hands down today will forestall the end of race-based disparities in this country, making the colorblind world the majority wistfully touts much more difficult to accomplish.”
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Martin Finucane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.