DENVER — The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in June that race cannot be a factor in college admissions, overturning a precedent last set in Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003.
“The majority holds that the use of race conscious admissions practices violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution,” explained Sara Chatfield, assistant professor of political science at the University of Denver.
Supporters of affirmative action said the practice equalized education opportunities, while those opposed said it violated their 14th Amendment rights.
“To say, ‘Well, this is going to hold people back?’ No. Pushing racism in admissions holds people back,” said Jon Caldera, president of the Independence Institute, a conservative think-tank.
“This just opens up those racial fault lines, yet again,” said Brother Jeff Fard, founder of Brother Jeff’s Cultural Center in Denver's Five Points neighborhood.
Denver7 takes a 360 In-Depth look into both sides of the argument and how the ruling will impact Colorado colleges.
Let’s start this 360 at Brother Jeff’s in Five Points, where those figurative fault lines run deep.
“I’m disappointed, but I’m not surprised,” said Fard. “And I’m not necessarily disappointed so much by the conservative majority. I’m disappointed by those who think differently and decided not to show up and vote.”
Fard said the removal of affirmative action is due to years of political involvement on one side and a lack thereof on the other. In particular, Fard pointed to the three justices former President Donald Trump put on the bench — Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.
“You’ll have the opportunity to appoint Supreme Court justices, which — in my opinion — makes Trump the most powerful president probably of the century because his reach is being felt right now on ideological terms,” Fard said. “[Former President Barack] Obama also had a Supreme Court pick, which was not able to get even heard in the Senate.”
Many believe the 6-3 vote is representative of a clear-cut conservative majority. But Caldara disagrees.
“To say that it is a conservative court is to be selective in what decisions you look at,” Caldera said. “There are lots of other decisions that have gone the other way in this so-called conservative court. I believe that is mostly media spin and leftist spin. Our chief justice is by no means a conservative, and he’s been a swing vote.”
Affirmative action in colleges could end, far-reaching impact possible
Caldara said this decision should be celebrated not demonized.
“The idea that anyone should be discriminated against because of the color of their skin is repugnant, no matter what it is,” he said. “And for people who are freaking out about this — let’s remember that this has been the law in places like California since 1996.”
Before the June ruling, nine states had banned the use of race conscious admissions in their state universities — California, Washington, Idaho, Arizona, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Michigan, New Hampshire, and Florida.
“In those states – what we have seen is a drop in the number of Black and Latino students who are admitted,” Chatfield said.
Michael Benitez, vice president of diversity and inclusion at Metropolitan State University of Denver and associate professor in the School of Education, fears the lack of affirmative action could further marginalize the underserved.
“We could literally lose our rights and lose our voice as individuals of a society that is beginning to rekindle sort of this unwelcomeness,” Benitez said. “We could go from feeling empowered, being able to make decisions that impact our well-being, to not being able to make those decisions for ourselves.”
In the court's opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said schools can still consider a student's individual experience of racism and overcoming barriers if it is explained in application essays.
“If you have determination, you’re going to overcome hurdles,” Fard said.
Many believe universities committed to diversity, equity and inclusion will continue along that path.
“They’re going to find a way,” Fard said. “Those essay questions are going to tease out exactly what those institutions are looking for and create an institution that is reflective of society. With inclusiveness, you have an opportunity to build on the best of everything. Without it, you have a single narrative, which excludes a good portion of what can make America great.”
“It’s going to require universities and colleges to have to think incredibly strategic,” Benitez said.
There seems to be a prevailing sentiment that universities will still be intentional about trying to diversify campus communities.
“And they should,” Caldara said. “And there are those people who don’t have the advantages of other people. And there are those people who might not have the money to go to college. And by all means, colleges should look at that and say, ‘Here’s a family that didn’t have money. Maybe we should help out.’ If there’s a reason someone is disadvantaged, don’t look at the skin color. Make up for the disadvantage.”
If there’s one thing certain in the U.S., it’s that nothing is permanent.
“One thing about this country is, it expands and it contracts,” Fard said. “This is maybe a speed bump, but it’s not the end of the story.”
“Obviously, it is setting a new standard for affirmative action in college admissions,” Chatfield said.
“And we’re going to see the pendulum swing again and again,” Benitez said.
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