High Court Strikes Down Racial Preferences In College Admissions

Chief Justice John Roberts: 'Eliminating racial discrimination means eliminating all of it'

Chief Justice John Roberts
Chief Justice John Roberts / Getty Images
June 29, 2023

The Supreme Court struck down race-based affirmative action at universities on Thursday, a decision that ends the controversial decades-old practice and could have major implications for college admissions across the country.

In a 6-3 opinion authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, a longtime opponent of racial preferences, the court ruled that the admissions programs at Harvard and University of North Carolina "cannot be reconciled with the guarantees of the Equal Protection Clause" 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."

In a concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that "the Constitution continues to embody a simple truth: Two discriminatory wrongs cannot make a right" and racial preferences "appear to be leading to a world in which everyone is defined by their skin color, demanding ever-increasing entitlements and preferences on that basis."

Roberts was also joined by Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett.

In a dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the Court’s ruling "rolls back decades of precedent and momentous progress" and "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 decision is a major victory for opponents of affirmative action, including Students for Fair Admissions, the advocacy group that brought the cases against Harvard and University of North Carolina. The ruling will also force many universities that use race as an admissions criteria to find new recruitment strategies.

Students for Fair Admissions argued that Harvard, in its quest for racial diversity, violated the Civil Rights Act by holding Asian applicants to higher admissions standards than other racial and ethnic groups. Students for Fair Admissions also claimed that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s race-based admissions policies were at odds with the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

The decision overturns the 45-year-old Supreme Court decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, which held that colleges could use race as one of multiple factors for admission.

Supporters of affirmative action—including the Biden administration, which had urged the Supreme Court not to take the case—argued that overturning that decision would be a massive setback for campus diversity.

The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law wrote in a pro-Harvard amicus brief that the university does not "treat race as the defining feature of an application" and said race-conscious admissions are necessary to ensure that students of all races are well-represented on campuses. The group also claimed that outlawing the practice would cause the share of black students admitted to plummet from 14 percent to 6 percent.

The ruling will likely force many schools across the country to revamp their recruitment and application processes. In California, where affirmative action was banned in 1995, the percentage of black and Latino students at the University of California at Los Angeles fell by around 50 percent immediately following the prohibition. Since then, the university has managed to recruit an even higher percentage of black and Latino students than before the ban, without using race as an admissions factor.

The last time the Court revisited the Bakke decision on affirmative action was in the 2003 case Grutter v. Bollinger. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who wrote the majority opinion upholding Bakke at that time, argued that affirmative action should be a temporary measure and "expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today."