“Harvard’s and UNC’s admissions programs violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment,” the U.S. Supreme Court declared in a ruling today.
The New York Times reports:
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the 6-3 majority, said the two programs “unavoidably employ race in a negative manner” and “involve racial stereotyping,” in a manner that violates the Constitution. However, he added, universities can consider how race has affected an applicant’s life. Students, he wrote, “must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual — not on the basis of race.”
The Grutter majority’s analysis tracked Justice Powell’s in many respects, including its insistence on limits on how universities may consider race in their admissions programs. Those limits, Grutter explained, were intended to guard against two dangers that all race-based government action portends. The first is the risk that the use of race will devolve into “illegitimate . . . stereotyp[ing].” Richmond v. J. A. Croson Co., 488 U. S. 469, 493 (plurality opinion). Admissions programs could thus not operate on the “belief that minority students always (or even consistently) express some characteristic minority viewpoint on any issue.” Grutter, 539 U. S., at 333 (internal quotation marks omitted). The second risk is that race would be used not as a plus, but as a negative—to discriminate against those racial groups that were not the beneficiaries of the race-based preference. A university’s use of race, accordingly, could not occur in a manner that “unduly harm[ed] nonminority applicants.” Id., at 341.
To manage these concerns, Grutter imposed one final limit on racebased admissions programs: At some point, the Court held, they must end. Id., at 342. Recognizing that “[e]nshrining a permanent justification for racial preferences would offend” the Constitution’s unambiguous guarantee of equal protection, the Court expressed its expectation that, in 25 years, “the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.” Id., at 343. Pp. 19– 21.
(e) Twenty years have passed since Grutter, with no end to racebased college admissions in sight. But the Court has permitted racebased college admissions only within the confines of narrow restrictions: such admissions programs must comply with strict scrutiny, may never use race as a stereotype or negative, and must—at some point—end. Respondents’ admissions systems fail each of these criteria and must therefore be invalidated under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 21–34.
(1) Respondents fail to operate their race-based admissions programs in a manner that is “sufficiently measurable to permit judicial [review]” under the rubric of strict scrutiny. Fisher v. University of Tex. at Austin, 579 U. S. 365, 381. First, the interests that respondents view as compelling cannot be subjected to meaningful judicial review. Those interests include training future leaders, acquiring new knowledge based on diverse outlooks, promoting a robust marketplace of ideas, and preparing engaged and productive citizens. While these are commendable goals, they are not sufficiently coherent for purposes of strict scrutiny. It is unclear how courts are supposed to measure any of these goals, or if they could, to know when they have been reached so that racial preferences can end. The elusiveness of respondents’ asserted goals is further illustrated by comparing them to recognized compelling interests. For example, courts can discern whether the temporary racial segregation of inmates will prevent harm to those in the prison, see Johnson v. California, 543 U. S. 499, 512–513, but the question whether a particular mix of minority students produces “engaged and productive citizens” or effectively “train[s] future leaders” is standardless.
Second, respondents’ admissions programs fail to articulate a meaningful connection between the means they employ and the goals they pursue. To achieve the educational benefits of diversity, respondents measure the racial composition of their classes using racial categories that are plainly overbroad (expressing, for example, no concern whether South Asian or East Asian students are adequately represented as “Asian”); arbitrary or undefined (the use of the category “Hispanic”); or underinclusive (no category at all for Middle Eastern students). The unclear connection between the goals that respondents seek and the means they employ preclude courts from meaningfully scrutinizing respondents’ admissions programs.
The universities’ main response to these criticisms is “trust us.” They assert that universities are owed deference when using race to benefit some applicants but not others. While this Court has recognized a “tradition of giving a degree of deference to a university’s academic decisions,” it has made clear that deference must exist “within constitutionally prescribed limits.” Grutter, 539 U. S., at 328. Respondents have failed to present an exceedingly persuasive justification for separating students on the basis of race that is measurable and concrete enough to permit judicial review, as the Equal Protection Clause requires. Pp. 22–26.
(2) Respondents’ race-based admissions systems also fail to comply with the Equal Protection Clause’s twin commands that race may never be used as a “negative” and that it may not operate as a stereotype. The First Circuit found that Harvard’s consideration of race has resulted in fewer admissions of Asian-American students. Respondents’ assertion that race is never a negative factor in their admissions programs cannot withstand scrutiny. College admissions are zerosum, and a benefit provided to some applicants but not to others necessarily advantages the former at the expense of the latter.
Respondents admissions programs are infirm for a second reason as well: They require stereotyping—the very thing Grutter foreswore. When a university admits students “on the basis of race, it engages in the offensive and demeaning assumption that [students] of a particular race, because of their race, think alike.” Miller v. Johnson, 515 U. S. 900, 911–912. Such stereotyping is contrary to the “core purpose” of the Equal Protection Clause. Palmore, 466 U. S., at 432. Pp. 26– 29.
(3) Respondents’ admissions programs also lack a “logical end point” as Grutter required. 539 U. S., at 342. Respondents suggest that the end of race-based admissions programs will occur once meaningful representation and diversity are achieved on college campuses. Such measures of success amount to little more than comparing the racial breakdown of the incoming class and comparing it to some other metric, such as the racial makeup of the previous incoming class or the population in general, to see whether some proportional goal has been reached. The problem with this approach is well established: “[O]utright racial balancing” is “patently unconstitutional.” Fisher, 570 U. S., at 311. Respondents’ second proffered end point—when students receive the educational benefits of diversity—fares no better. As explained, it is unclear how a court is supposed to determine if or when such goals would be adequately met. Third, respondents suggest the 25-year expectation in Grutter means that race-based preferences must be allowed to continue until at least 2028. The Court’s statement in Grutter, however, reflected only that Court’s expectation that racebased preferences would, by 2028, be unnecessary in the context of racial diversity on college campuses. Finally, respondents argue that the frequent reviews they conduct to determine whether racial preferences are still necessary obviates the need for an end point. But Grutter never suggested that periodic review can make unconstitutional conduct constitutional. Pp. 29–34.
(f) Because Harvard’s and UNC’s admissions programs lack sufficiently focused and measurable objectives warranting the use of race, unavoidably employ race in a negative manner, involve racial stereotyping, and lack meaningful end points, those admissions programs cannot be reconciled with the guarantees of the Equal Protection Clause. At the same time, nothing prohibits universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life, so long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability that the particular applicant can contribute to the university. Many universities have for too long wrongly concluded that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned, but the color of their skin. This Nation’s constitutional history does not tolerate that choice.
In her dissent, which Justices Kagan and Jackson joined, Justice Sotomayor writes:
Although progress has been slow and imperfect, race-conscious college admissions policies have advanced the Constitution’s guarantee of equality and have promoted Brown’s vision of a Nation with more inclusive schools. Today, this Court stands in the way and rolls back decades of precedent and momentous progress. It holds that race can no longer be used in a limited way in college admissions to achieve such critical benefits. In so holding, the Court cements a superficial rule of colorblindness as a constitutional principle in an endemically segregated society where race has always mattered and continues to matter. The Court subverts the constitutional guarantee of equal protection by further entrenching racial inequality in education, the very foundation of our democratic government and pluralistic society. Because the Court’s opinion is not grounded in law or fact and contravenes the vision of equality embodied in the Fourteenth Amendment, I dissent.
The whole decision is here. It is expected to affect educational admissions policies and practices across the country.