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Political leaders, educators, legal analysts react to Supreme Court’s affirmative action decision

Demonstrators react to the affirmative action opinion outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, June 29, 2023.KENNY HOLSTON/NYT

Lawmakers, advocates, and educators across Massachusetts on Thursday condemned the Supreme Court ruling striking down affirmative action in college admissions, while supporters hailed the decision as long overdue.

“Today the Supreme Court has bowed to the personally held beliefs of an extremist minority,” said NAACP president and CEO Derrick Johnson said in a statement.

“Race plays an undeniable role in shaping the identities of and quality of life for Black Americans,” he said. “In a society still scarred by the wounds of racial disparities, the Supreme Court has displayed a willful ignorance of our reality.”

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Ian Rowe, a senior fellow with the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, praised the ruling.

“Years from now, [Black] students admitted to top schools will say Thank you Supreme Court for a decision that removes the perception the only reason I got in is due to my race,” Rowe posted on Twitter. “You re-established merit as the core criteria to be considered against a standard bar of excellence.”

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion that while the admissions policies of Harvard University and the University of North Carolina violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, schools don’t have to disregard race entirely during the admissions process.

Roberts said the race-conscious policies at Harvard and UNC are unlawful because they “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.”

At the same time, “nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise,” he said.

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The Boston-based group Lawyers for Civil Rights highlighted that passage in a statement on the ruling, saying it raises “the bar on universities’ ability to consider race in admissions” but doesn’t entirely ban efforts to diversify student bodies.

“Today’s decision cannot be construed as an outright bar on race-conscious admissions,” the group said. “Key elements of the holistic admissions process for higher education institutions remain in place.”

The ruling permits universities to use “race-neutral” methods to achieve racial diversity by weighing factors such as income and socioeconomic background, home and school zip codes and investing heavily in admitting first-generation students. Schools can also guarantee admission to graduates with the best grade-point-averages from high schools where the college is located.

But Joyce Alene, a former US attorney who teaches at the University of Alabama Law School, said that the ruling makes clear that “any use of race” can be challenged and rejected, noting that Roberts specified that “universities may not simply establish through application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today.”

“While some are saying race can still be used, if you read this portion of the opinion, it’s clear that any use of race can be challenged & rejected under the language of this opinion,” Alene wrote.

In her dissent, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson cited centuries of racial discrimination in American society and law to argue that government policies often “affirmatively operated — one could say, affirmatively acted — to dole out preferences” to people who weren’t Black in ways that still have repercussions.

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Vincent D. Rougeau, president of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, referenced that fraught history, saying he’s “disheartened” in the court’s ruling as the son of Black civil rights activists.

“As a college president and legal scholar, I am disappointed by this decision and concerned about the implications for higher education and our country,” he said. “Affirmative action was an important tool, albeit one of many, that colleges and universities could use to expand opportunity for underrepresented students and build diverse learning communities.”

Many Democratic lawmakers also criticized the ruling, including US Representative Ayanna Pressley of Boston.

“For decades, affirmative action has been a critical tool for confronting the legacy of anti-Black racism and discrimination still present in higher education,” Pressley said in a statement. “However, today’s decision by the far-right extreme Supreme Court will only exacerbate the systemic oppression that has barred Black, brown, and other marginalized students from equitable opportunities.”

US Representative Katherine Clark, a Revere Democrat, said the ruling ignored the persistence of racism in society.

“The Court’s extreme conservative majority has applied a color-blind standard when we know we don’t live in a color-blind society,” Clark said.

The lawmakers’ words were echoed by the left-leaning Massachusetts Budget & Policy Center.

“The Supreme Court is taking away a critical tool needed to build a more equitable education system,” the group said. “The negative effects of this decision will be felt immediately in higher education, and likely across education more broadly in the years to come.

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United States House Democratic Leader Hakim Jeffries of New York blasted the ruling “as regressive.”

The court “has turned a blind eye to systemic racism and has failed to uphold our nation’s values of diversity, equity and inclusion,” he said in a statement. “All students deserve a fair shot at going to college, regardless of their income, home town or their racial and ethnic background.”

But a number of prominent Republicans praised the ruling, including Florida Congressman Byron Donalds.

“Today’s ruling is a massive win against the left’s equity agenda that seeks to achieve ‘equality’ through equal outcomes, not equal access,” Donalds tweeted. “There was clearly a time when affirmative action was needed to end racial discrimination, but that time is over. The High Court rightly ended this policy. Merit and achievement must be the #1 attribute we all desire.”


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Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com.