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On Thursday, the United States Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in a 6-3 decision. The ruling upends decades of precedent allowing colleges and universities to help increase the diversity of the student body.
Affirmative action was designed to give students from underrepresented racial groups extra consideration in the application and admissions process.
While the utilization of affirmative action came about during the Civil Rights era, it has its roots in reconstruction. In the 1870s, leaders in Georgia proposed a policy known as “forty acres and a mule”. This effort intended to rectify the burdens placed on Black Americans through slavery and other violent and racist policies.
Racist legislators in the South roundly rejected the effort. Nearly a century later, following the Brown v. Board decision, colleges and universities nationwide began affirmative action efforts. In the decades since, the efforts have bolstered enrollment for students of color and women in higher education.
Now, many fear the loss of the practice will have harmful ramifications for students of color. One study suggested an affirmative action ban could reduce the chance of enrollment in a highly selective college or university by 23%.
The majority opinion overturning affirmative action, Chief Justice John Roberts stated students should be admitted on their own experience. However, that their race should play no role in the decision making process.
“A benefit to a student who overcame racial discrimination, for example, must be tied to that student’s courage and determination,” Roberts wrote.
“In other words, the student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual—not on the basis of race.”
Additionally, in his defense of the decision, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a concurring opinion continuously claimed that the U.S. Constitution has always been “colorblind” and that U.S. laws and policies should stay that way.
“I…offer an originalist defense of the colorblind Constitution,” Justice Thomas wrote in his concurring opinion.
Yet it’s unclear whether he forgot about the former 3/5ths clause of that same founding document, which classified enslaved Black people as less than fully human.
Leaders speak out after Supreme Court ruling
The reaction to the ruling from leaders across the country has been both swift and direct. Many call the decision a step backward for the nation and a halt to decades of progress.
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama both shared their frustrations on social media.
“Affirmative action was never a complete answer in the drive towards a more just society,” the former President wrote. “But for generations of students who had been systematically excluded from most of America’s key institutions—it gave us the chance to show we more than deserved a seat at the table.”
First Lady Michelle Obama offered her remarks as well.
“It wasn’t perfect,” she wrote, “but there’s no doubt that it helped offer new ladders of opportunity for those who, throughout our history, have too often been denied a chance to show how fast they can climb.”
“Today,” she continued, “my heart breaks for any young person out there who’s wondering what their future holds.”
Arne Duncan, the former Secretary of Education under President Obama, also condemned the decision.
“A terrible day for our nation,” Duncan wrote on Twitter. “America is going backwards.”
“Reversing decades of progress that has made us better, stronger and more inclusive hurts all of us. The Supreme Court isn’t just losing credibility due to all the recent scandals, it is also losing moral authority.”
In light of the decision, some lawmakers are already calling for action to ensure fairness and equity are central to the college and university admissions process.
“This is undoubtedly a setback,” Congresswoman Frederica Wilson (D-FL) said in a press release. “But we will not let these discriminatory admission factors stand without challenge.”