1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

US Supreme Court strikes down race-based college admissions

June 29, 2023

The court voted 6-3 along partisan lines, ruling that schools cannot use race as a factor in determining who they accept. Proponents claim race consideration promotes opportunity, opponents call it discriminatory.

US students protesting in support of affimative action in front of the US Supreme Court in October 2022
Race was only one of several factors considered in college admissions but it has proven divisive neverthelessImage: J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo/picture alliance

The US Supreme Court on Thursday overturned years of precedent to rule that universities and colleges can no longer consider race or ethnicity as factors when they select their students.

The court's six conservative justices — Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — voted to strike down race-based admissions considerations. Liberal Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson, voted to uphold them.

The 6-3 conservative majority found the practice of affirmative action discriminatory — not a tool for ensuring diversity and enhancing educational opportunities for Blacks, Hispanics and other minorities.

Ruling against Harvard, the oldest private college in the US; and the University of North Carolina (UNC), the nation's oldest public university, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion, "The student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual — not on the basis of race."

US Supreme Court strikes down affirmative action

Who brought the case before the Supreme Court?

The case was brought by a group calling itself Students for Fair Admissions, which was founded and is run by anti-affirmative action activist Edward Blum. He previously argued that considering race as an admissions factor was unfair and discriminatory toward white and Asian-American students.

Students for Fair Admissions claimed UNC's practice violated the US Constitution's 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law. The group also argued that Harvard's practices were in violation of Title VI provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act barring discrimination based on race, color or national origin.

In Thursday's case, Blum and his group asked the court to overturn Grutter v. Bollinger, a 2003 decision that allowed schools to consider race as an admissions factor so long as it was very narrowly tailored.

Advocates in favor of the practice say diversity at universities where affirmative action has been struck down by state supreme courts has suffered as a result. Proponents also fear what Thursday's decision could mean for affirmative action when it comes to workplace hiring.

How have US politicians reacted to the decision?

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York called the decision "misguided," saying: "The Supreme Court ruling has put a giant roadblock in our country's march toward racial justice. The consequences of this decision will be felt immediately and across the country, as students of color will face an admission cycle next year with fewer opportunities to attend the same colleges and universities than their parents and older siblings."

Republican presidential candidate Mike Pence, who served as vice-president under Donald Trump, said: "There is no place for discrimination based on race in the United States, and I am pleased that the Supreme Court has put an end to this egregious violation of civil and constitutional rights in admissions processes, which only served to perpetuate racism."

Former Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama also weighed in on the ruling with both arguing for and against respectively.

Trump, who appointed three of the court's conservative judges, called the decision "amazing," saying Thursday was "a great day for America."

Obama said that although, "affirmative action was never a complete answer in the drive towards a more just society," it had given those previously excluded, "the chance to show we more than deserved a seat at the table."

What has the White House said?

Within hours of the decision, President Joe Biden spoke at the White House about its ramifications. In short but impassioned remarks, Biden said he strongly disagreed with the majority opinion, instead agreeing with the dissenting opinion's claim that, "it rolls back decades of precedent."

Biden, who said colleges and universities had enjoyed the freedom to decide how to diversify their student bodies for 45 years, argued that schools and the nation as a whole are "stronger when they are racially diverse."

After encouraging institutions of higher learning to consider the adversity that individual students had overcome to qualify for admission — adversity such as low income upbringings in poor neighborhoods with disadvantaged schools — Biden said, "discrimination still exists in America, today's decision does not change that."

He also sought to defuse the argument that race was allowing unqualified students to gain admission to schools before railing against legacy admissions policies that benefit generally wealthy students whose family members had previously attended a school. 

Biden said legacy policies, "expand privilege rather than opportunity," and he bemoaned the fact that, "the odds have been stacked against working people for far too long."

In closing, he admonished those listening to "remember that diversity is our strength," noting "we cannot let this decision be the last word."

Joe Biden stands at a lectern in the White House as he speaks about the Supreme Court's decision to end affirmative action; flags and a equestrian portrait of President Theodore Roosevelt are seen in the background
Biden made clear that he fiercly disgreed with the Supreme Court's decision to 'roll back decades of precedent'Image: Evan Vucci/AP/picture alliance

js/nm (AFP, AP, Reuters)