In a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that Harvard University and the University of North Carolina (UNC) violated the 14th Amendment by considering applicants’ race during the admissions process. The decision effectively ends affirmative action policies for institutions of higher education.
“Because Harvard’s and UNC’s admissions 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, those admissions programs cannot be reconciled with the guarantees of the Equal Protection Clause,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote. “Many universities have for too long wrongly concluded that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned, but the color of their skin. This Nation’s constitutional history does not tolerate that choice.”
Roberts’ majority opinion was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett. While Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kegan dissented in both cases, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson dissented in the UNC case, but recused herself in the Harvard case.
Thursday’s decision involves a nonprofit known as Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), which filed lawsuits alleging that Harvard and UNC’s race-based admissions policies violate provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.
In the Harvard case, plaintiffs claimed the school “artificially raised the standards of admission for Asian-American applicants” and that “Asians were admitted at a lower rate than whites, even though their overall academic scores were better.” According to SFFA, a black applicant to Harvard in the fourth-lowest academic decile has a higher chance of admission than an Asian American in the very top decile.
Regarding UNC, plaintiffs similarly asserted the university employed an admissions process that favored black, Native American, and Hispanic applicants. SFFA’s lawsuits were originally heard by separate district courts before being granted certiorari by SCOTUS.
In Thursday’s opinion, Roberts admonished both universities for adopting arbitrary standards that fail to justify their race-based admission policies and explained how both schools failed to abide by the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, which demands equal application of the law.
“The entire point of the Equal Protection Clause is that treating someone differently because of their skin color is not like treating them differently because they are from a city or from a suburb, or because they play the violin poorly or well,” Roberts wrote. “But when a university admits students ‘on the basis of race, it engages in the offensive and demeaning assumption that [students] of a particular race, because of their race, think alike’ … at the very least alike in the sense of being different from nonminority students. In doing so, the university furthers ‘stereotypes that treat individuals as the product of their race, evaluating their thoughts and efforts—their very worth as citizens—according to a criterion barred to the Government by history and the Constitution.’”
Justice Thomas filed a concurring opinion, in which he offered “an originalist defense of the colorblind Constitution.” Thomas notes how despite having “nearly 50 years to develop their arguments, neither Harvard nor UNC—two of the foremost research institutions in the world—nor any of their amici” have been able to develop coherent arguments explaining “how racial diversity yields educational benefits.”
Neither these colleges nor their amici successfully “demonstrate[d] measurable or concrete benefits that have resulted from universities’ race-conscious admissions programs,” Thomas wrote. “Of course, even if these universities had shown that racial diversity yielded any concrete or measurable benefits, they would still face a very high bar to show that their interest is compelling. To survive strict scrutiny, any such benefits would have to outweigh the tremendous harm inflicted by sorting individuals on the basis of race.”
Meanwhile, Justice Jackson criticized the majority for adhering to the Constitution’s requirement of equal application of the law. In her dissent, Jackson accused the court of engaging in “let-them-eat-cake obliviousness” and seemingly argued in favor of disparate legal treatment with respect to race, writing: “But deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life.”
“And having so detached itself from this country’s actual past and present experiences, the Court has now been lured into interfering with the crucial work that UNC and other institutions of higher learning are doing to solve America’s real-world problems,” she added.
Thomas, who grew up in rural poverty during the height of segregation, admonished Jackson for her “race-infused world view,” which he said “falls flat at each step.”
“Individuals are the sum of their unique experiences, challenges, and accomplishments. What matters is not the barriers they face, but how they choose to confront them. And their race is not to blame for everything—good or bad—that happens in their lives. A contrary, myopic world view based on individuals’ skin color to the total exclusion of their personal choices is nothing short of racial determinism,” he wrote.