In this year’s session of the Supreme Court, two divisive cases addressing affirmative action will be decided. Although official rulings do not come out until the end of the Court’s session in June, rumors are already swirling over what the decision will be and what it could mean for college admissions in the future.
Affirmative action is an idea meant to address discrimination—especially on the basis of race—in the admissions process. The procedures stemming from this idea are meant to minimize the effects of factors such as racism, sexism, and socioeconomic disparity on an individual’s acceptance to an institution by acknowledging both past and ongoing systemic discrimination. It is supposed to offer additional opportunities to minorities and other under-represented groups.
Some people believe that affirmative action can change accountability standards, lessen achievements, and even cause imposter syndrome among minority groups. Others believe that it can reduce stereotypes, help eliminate socioeconomic disparities, and promote diversity in institutions. “Affirmative action feels to me like a bribe. It does not undo the centuries of discrimination against POC and other minorities in this country,” said Ava Driggers ’24. August Sengupta ’24 said, “Affirmative action is a really complicated issue. I think your perspective on it really depends on the background you’re from.” August’s perspective is a common one for many people living in America and even abroad, showing how affirmative action can be a very divisive issue.
The Supreme Court has ruled on this topic before: the 2003 case Grutter vs Bollinger. In a five-four decision, the nine Justices determined that race consciousness in the University of Michigan’s admissions process was lawful and protected by the 14th Amendment. In 2016, in the case Fisher vs the University of Texas, the Court upheld this opinion.
In the years since this decision, however, the political orientation of the Court has become increasingly conservative, and none of the justices who had voted to keep affirmative action still serve.
This season, the Court will once again discuss whether race-conscious admissions are legal or ethical. They will hear two cases: Students for Fair Admissions vs President and Fellows of Harvard College and Students for Fair Admissions vs the University of North Carolina. The first of these two cases asserts that Harvard uses affirmative action to favor white applicants over Asian applicants and is in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The second simply alleges that the use of these policies is discriminatory and should not be protected under the 14th Amendment, as affirmative action in fact violates it. Initially, the Court consolidated these two cases with the intention to hear them as one but later chose to revert their course of action and hear them as two. This severing took place so that Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson could serve on the case against the University of North Carolina. She has to recuse herself from participation in the Harvard case as she was formerly a member of their board of overseers. It is interesting to note that one of these two institutions is public and receives a significant amount of state and federal funding while the other is private and does not.
Many people suspect that in at least one of these two cases, the Court will overturn its 2003 ruling and thus bring an end to legal affirmative action. Other people think the ruling might restrict these policies without barring them entirely. Until the final decision is released in around six months, however, no one outside of the Court can know for sure.