Explained: What is affirmative action, now banned for university admissions in the US?

The US Supreme Court has ruled that race cannot be considered in university admissions, overturning 'affirmative action'. Debate ensues.

Sounak Mukhopadhyay
First Published30 Jun 2023
Nine US states already have bans on race-based college admissions in place.
Nine US states already have bans on race-based college admissions in place.

The US Supreme Court has delivered a significant ruling, declaring that race can no longer be considered as a factor in university admissions. This decision marks a departure from long-standing US policies on “affirmative action”, also known as positive discrimination, and has ignited widespread debate. Affirmative action was introduced in the 1960s as a means to enhance diversity in educational institutions.

Supreme Court ruling

Chief Justice John Roberts, who authored the majority opinion, expressed the view that universities had wrongly placed undue emphasis on an individual's racial identity, asserting that the colour of one's skin should not be the touchstone for evaluating an applicant. Justice Clarence Thomas, a conservative advocate for ending affirmative action, concurred, describing such programs as unconstitutional.

The dissenting liberal justices, including Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first black woman appointed to the court, and Sonia Sotomayor, voiced their opposition to the ruling. They argued that the decision entrenched a superficial principle of colorblindness in a society that remains inherently segregated.

Also Read: What factors should you consider when applying for an education loan?

While the ruling impacts affirmative action policies in university admissions, it is worth noting that nine US states already have bans on race-based college admissions in place.

Reactions

The ruling, which had been highly anticipated, has drawn differing views from prominent figures. US President Joe Biden expressed strong disagreement with the decision, stating that discrimination still persists in America and that this ruling should not be the final word on the matter. 

Also Read: US Supreme Court bans reservation in admissions: Harvard University defends diversity, says, ‘we write today to…’

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona emphasised the importance of maintaining diversity on college campuses, highlighting the need for universities to find legal ways to achieve this objective.

What is affirmative action?

Affirmative action is a policy aimed at addressing historical prejudices against individuals from certain identity groups. Specifically, in the context of higher education, affirmative action refers to admissions practices that seek to increase the representation of Black, Hispanic and other minority students in colleges and universities.

This policy takes into account various factors in the application process, including grades, test scores, extracurricular activities and race, as part of a holistic approach.

The objective of implementing race-conscious admissions policies is to foster diversity among students, with the aim of enhancing the overall educational experience. 

Also Read: US Supreme Court overturns race-based university admissions, Biden ‘strongly disagrees’

Alongside admissions, educational institutions also employ recruitment programs and scholarship opportunities to encourage diversity, but the focus of recent Supreme Court litigation has been on admissions policies.

Affirmative action in the United States has been compared to the reservation system in India, as both are controversial topics in their respective countries. In India, reservations were introduced in the constitution shortly after independence, with the aim of acknowledging historical injustices faced by backward groups and providing them with improved access to resources and opportunities.

These policies seek to rectify historical discrimination and promote inclusivity in educational institutions. The intention is to create a level playing field by considering various aspects of an applicant's profile, including their race or social background, in order to address systemic disadvantages faced by certain groups. 

Affirmative action and reservation systems serve as tools to promote equal representation and opportunities for historically-marginalised communities.

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