After the conservative-dominated Supreme Court ruled today that race-conscious admissions policies are unconstitutional, the repercussions in higher education are likely to be felt most acutely at the most in-demand and prestigious universities. This includes private institutions in California — where race-conscious admissions have been illegal at public universities since the 1990s.
It was predicted, but dreaded, for much of this term, that a big case brought by anti-affirmative action crusaders would likely prevail among the Supreme Court's six-justice conservative majority. Chief Justice John Roberts has been a crusader against affirmative action for much of his legal career, calling it a "sordid business" in a 2006 opinion. And recent podcasts like Slow Burn have delved into Clarence Thomas's long hatred for the policy — and his personal feelings about being looked upon as an "affirmative action case" when he was a student at Yale Law School.
Today, both got to say their piece in separate opinions, and Thomas took the unusual step of reading his own concurrence from the bench — the New York Times noted that Justice Katanji Brown Jackson, who wrote her own separate dissent from Sotomayor's main dissenting opinion, "appeared to tense up at times" while Thomas was reading his.
Jusice Sotomayor said in her dissent that she was a product of affirmative action, like Thomas, and she countered Thomas's and the majority's opinions saying, "The Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment enshrines a guarantee of racial equality. The court long ago concluded that this guarantee can be enforced through race-conscious means in a society that is not, and has never been, colorblind." She added that the majority opinion "cements a superficial rule of colorblindness as a constitutional principle in an endemically segregated society where race has always mattered and continues to matter."
She also called out Thomas and the other conservatives for once again overturning precedent because of sour grapes from past decisions that they were in the minority on. "Lost arguments are not grounds to overrule a case," Sotomayor writes. "When proponents of those arguments, greater now in number on the Court, return to fight old battles anew, it betrays an unrestrained disregard for precedent."
Justice Jackson's scathing additional dissent suggests that the conservatives are perversely working against the Equal Protection Clause while claiming they are for it, and that the Constitution demands that elite institutions take steps to right historical wrongs of our society. "With let-them-eat-cake obliviousness, today, the majority pulls the ripcord and announces ‘colorblindness for all’ by legal fiat," Jackson writes.
"Time will reveal the results. Yet the Court’s own missteps are now both eternally memorialized and excruciatingly plain," Jackson says, concluding that the decision will "obstruct our collective progress toward the full realization of the Clause’s promise, [and] is truly a tragedy for us all."
The entire opinion document, with its concurrences and dissents, totals 237 pages. Gorsuch and Kavanaugh wrote their own concurrences as well, to make sure that all of their particular rationales for striking down this major precedent are fully articulated.
California's public universities have for two decades been a kind of test case for the student bodies that race-blind admissions policies create. And indeed, University of California leaders filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case, discussing how, after California voters passed Proposition 209 in 1996, the percentages of Black and Latinx students fell. Directly after the proposition took effect in 1998, the Black share of the freshman class at UC Berkeley fell by half, to just 3 percent, and the Latinx share fell to 7 percent. Those percentages have since recovered across the UC system, but they still don't match the diversity of the state's population — especially at the two most elite campuses, UC Berkeley and UCLA.
At UC Berkeley, Black students represent less than 4 percent of the student body, while they represent 5 percent of public school students in the state, as the Washington Post reported last fall. And Latinx students represented around 23 percent of the undergraduate student body at Berkeley last year, while they represent almost 45 percent of California high school graduates.
As the LA Times reported in 2020, when voters in California were again being asked to vote on affirmative action in education (Prop 16, which failed, would have restored race-conscious admissions at state schools), the group of voters most sensitive to this issue are Asian Americans. Much like the fight in San Francisco over ending merit-based admissions at Lowell High School, Asian families tend to feel they lose out in race-conscious admissions, whereas schools would have to admit more high-performing Asian students if decisions were made on merit alone.
"Asian Americans predominate at UC and are significantly overrepresented — making up 40.3% of in-state freshmen last year compared with their 19.9% share among California high school graduates eligible for UC admission," the LA Times wrote. "After Proposition 209 banned race-based preferential treatment, the gap between [Asian students'] high admission rates and those of other ethnic groups widened with their rigorous high school course loads, high GPAs and competitive test scores."
Still UC Berkeley often touts its diversity, with a campus that is only 19.7% white. And the Washington Post spoke to an incoming freshman of Mexican descent last fall, Jennifer Silva, who said she had chosen the school for its diversity. She added, though, "I am here, but I wonder if I am seen."
The LA Times also pointed to private California schools like Stanford, which have maintained race-conscious admissions policies, where Asian American students represent just 23 percent of the student body. At Pomona College, it's even lower, at 16%. (Asian Americans represented 15.5% of the state population in the 2020 Census.)
The Supreme Court majority opinion today touches on the case against Harvard's admissions policy, which it feels discriminated against Asian Americans in favor of other races. "Respondents’ assertion that race is never a negative factor in their admissions programs cannot withstand scrutiny," Chief Justice Roberts writes. "College admissions are zero-sum, and a benefit provided to some applicants but not to others necessarily advantages the former at the expense of the latter."
The UC system's lessons after Prop 209, vis a vis Black and Latinx students, have led to new policies encouraging a more diverse applicant pool — like a policy in which the top 9 percent of all graduating high schoolers in the state are guaranteed admission to a UC school. And, today's decision could spell the death knell for standardized testing, which is already being discounted at elite institutions as a factor in admissions in order to balance the historically poorer test scores of minority applicants.
Priscilla Rodriguez, the senior vice president of College Board, the non-profit that administers the SAT exam, told ABC News last week that she supports race-conscious admissions. "If the court rules that race must be taken out of the consideration process, I worry that it will remove a valuable way that students who come from underrepresented, or I'll call it, nontraditional backgrounds, are able to show or let colleges know that there's a history and a background that they bring to college that may be different than other students."
And the Times asked a white, incoming high school senior his opinion. "I find the decision to be abhorrent," says 18-year-old Zachary Clifton of Kentucky, who tells the Times he plans to apply to Harvard and UNC, the schools that figured into the SCOTUS case. "I think most young people are pretty uniform in their reaction to this."
Photo: Jason Leung