By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
The power of the super conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court was in full display last week with decisions on five key cases relating to Civil Rights and Diversity.
The conservatives voted in unison 6-3 to reject affirmative action in college admissions; favor the speech of the religious over anti-discrimination laws; and torpedo President Biden’s plan to forgive student loan debt.
The one which revealed the most cultural and political division was on Affirmative Action.
The court barred universities from using race-based affirmative action in admissions, overturning decades of precedence that had allowed the policy to be used by many majority White Colleges seeking to diversify their student populations.
Dr. Eric Claville, a political and legal analyst and professor of politics and law at Norfolk State University, characterized the Supreme Court’s ruling on Affirmative Action as both expected and regressive.
“Higher education leaders have known for a long time that this challenge [to affirmative action] would come,” he said. “We need these policies to advance diversity and equity on campuses, and the law is the incentive to make and enforce those changes.”
He continued, “Without that, we will not have the same protections for promoting diverse, inclusive, equitable student bodies in Virginia and elsewhere.”
Claville said the high court’s decision “will have far-reaching implications beyond limiting race-based admissions in colleges.”
“I believe that here in Virginia, we will see ripple effects – perhaps in the way we hire for jobs, in the ways we support our communities, in the work across many sectors – that could basically roll back advancement opportunities for non-white people,” he said.
The court’s decision centered on Harvard and the University of North Carolina. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion.
“Eliminating racial discrimination means eliminating all of it,” Roberts wrote in his opinion, which was joined by conservative Justices Brett Kavanaugh, Samuel Alito, Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, and Clarence Thomas.
“The student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual – not on the basis of race,” Roberts wrote. “Many universities have for too long done just the opposite.
And in doing so, they have concluded, wrongly, that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned but the color of their skin. Our constitutional history does not tolerate that choice.”
The three Liberal Justices dissented.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor said, “Ignoring race will not equalize a society that is racially unequal. What was true in the 1860s, and again in 1954, is true today: Equality requires acknowledgment of inequality.”
The court cited the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, which Congress proposed and the states ratified after the Civil War.
The clause provides that no state shall “deny to any person … the equal protection of the laws.”
The amendment has been cited for decades in efforts to end racial discrimination. Roberts’s opinion noted the 14th Amendment’s role in that fight, but he ultimately relied on it to end policies the universities said were crucial to boost the racial diversity of the student body.
The dissenting justices said the ruling would deepen racial inequality on campuses.
“The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth 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,” Justice Sotomayor wrote in a dissent.
Several public Virginia schools – including Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech – issued statements saying they plan to review their admission policies following the ruling.
While each noted change could be required, the universities also reaffirmed their commitment to educating students from historically underrepresented groups.
“We will, of course, continue to follow the law,” wrote UVA President Jim Ryan and Provost Ian Baucom in a statement. “We will also continue to do everything within our legal authority to recruit and admit a class of students who are diverse across every possible dimension and to make every student feel welcome and included.”
VCU President Michael Rao cited enrollment statistics as evidence for the university’s commitment to diversity in a statement.
“A third of our freshmen class are first-generation students and nearly a third of our undergraduate students are Pell-eligible,” Rao said. “We are proud that our student body reflects such a diverse array of experiences.”
Christopher Newport University law professor Linda Ficht told Ryan Murphy, a reporter with partner station WHRO News, that schools will have to find other ways to ensure they’re maintaining a diverse student body following the ruling.
“For example, a student would be able to say how their race has impacted their journey to college,” Ficht said. “That will still be a discussion that students can have in letters, interest statements, diversity statements and things like that.”
William & Mary’s spokesperson Erin Jay, said, “The university will take time thoughtfully to review (the ruling) and understand if there are implications to William & Mary’s comprehensive review process for admissions.”
The university reported that 32 percent of its students “identify as people of color” and on its website has said it is “committed to affirmative action, equal opportunity/equity, and diversity.”
Black and Latino residents make up 34 percent of the college-age population in the state, far fewer are enrolled in Virginia’s public colleges, according to a report by Education Reform Now, a Washington-based think tank.
Only three public universities in the state enroll Black and Latino students at a rate equal to the state population: Norfolk State University, Virginia State University and Old Dominion University. Norfolk State and VSU are historically Black universities.
George Mason University said flatly the decision will have no impact on the school, because it doesn’t consider race in its admissions process and admits more than 90% of undergraduate applicants. In August, GMU said, the school will “once again welcome the largest and most diverse student body in the history of the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
While we the court ruled along ideological lines, so was the response from state politicians.
Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin said, “…we are closer than ever before to ensuring that an individual’s future opportunities are unlocked based on the trajectory of their potential, their aspirations, and the quality of their capabilities as opposed to simply on their race.”
Virginia Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears concurred, saying the decision “gives our children a hope and a future.”
Virginia’s 3rd District Congressman Democrat Bobby Scott said “race-conscious admissions policies provided a counterbalance to discriminatory factors and the new ruling invalidates the balances.”
He is calling on the U.S. Attorney General to start filing cases now against any current school practices that violate the Equal Protection Clause and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
Virginia’s Fourth District Congressperson Jennifer McClellan, a Democrat, called the ruling “disappointing”
“This holistic approach to college admissions was integral to creating opportunity for disadvantaged Black and Brown communities. The impact of 246 years of slavery and 100 years of Jim Crow on our communities and institutions did not go away with a magic wand.”