by Alice Xu
On June 29th, 2023, the Supreme Court of the United States overturned a practice cemented in the realm of university admissions for nearly 60 years: affirmative action. In the cases of Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina, and Students for Fair Admission v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, 6 to 3 and 6 to 2 votes were called in respectively. This decision by the Supreme Court was made following other recent cases, notably the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and the ruling of New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen.
Affirmative action, established in the 1960s, is a form of “positive discrimination” which encourages diversity and representation of underrepresented minorities (URM) in higher education. At the time of its establishment, racial segregation justified the need for positive discrimination against African-Americans. Six decades later, critics deemed the policy unfair and discriminatory, especially towards minority groups that occupy more space in academia.
This begs the question: do present-day barriers to education justify the need for positive discrimination, or is affirmative action an outdated policy that has no place in modern-day society where acceptance is based on merit? Clarence Thomas, one of the two African-American justices on the Supreme Court, argues the latter.
Clarence Thomas and his Colorblind America
When future justice Clarence Thomas matriculated at Yale Law School in 1971, he did so as a self-proclaimed beneficiary of Yale’s newly minted color quota. In 1983, he stated that “God only knows where I would be today” if not for “these laws and their proper application.” Despite reaping the benefits of affirmative action himself, Justice Thomas voted to overturn the policy, finding an enemy in fellow African-American Justice Ketanji Brown-Jackson in the process.
In her dissent, Justice Brown-Jackson made a memorable statement: “With let-them-eat-cake obliviousness, today, the majority pulls the ripcord and announces “colorblindness for all” by legal fiat. But deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life.”
In response to Justice Brown-Jackson’s dissent, Justice Thomas wrote: “As she sees things, we are all inexorably trapped in a fundamentally racist society, with the original sin of slavery and the historical subjugation of black Americans still determining our lives today,” and claimed that she possessed a “race infused world view” that “falls flat at each step.”
To that, Justice Brown-Jackson responded: “[America] has never been colourblind.”
As the second African-American on the Supreme Court, one of the twelve African-Americans in his class at Yale Law School, and someone who credits his career to affirmative action, Clarence Thomas’ vote bit the hands that not only fed him, but many fellow African-Americans in giving them access to unparalleled opportunities and representation in education and beyond.
What’s Next for College Admissions
While race will not be a formal factor, college admissions are not completely race-blind, as applicants are still invited to discuss their racialized experiences in supplemental essays. Regardless, the overturning of affirmative action is predicted to cause a drop in the amount of African-American and Latinx students at schools such as Harvard.
Alice Xu is a writer and high school junior from Toronto and New Mexico. Outside of school, she dedicates her time to volunteering with political organisations, working on projects dedicated to tackling racism in the Greater Toronto Area, and advocating for mental health and social justice in her local community.