Civil Rights

The Supreme Court Corrects a Grievous Error

July 6, 2023

Robert Delahunty

Washington Fellow

This essay by Robert Delahunty & John Yoo was originally published at National Review on June 30th, 2023.

In Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, it finally removed higher education’s exemption from the principle of colorblindness.

In every area of life, the Constitution and federal civil-rights laws forbid the government from using race in making decisions. Government cannot use race to distribute government funds, provide benefits, deploy police, run prisons or hospitals, or even protect the nation’s security through “racial profiling.” But the Court carved out one area from this fundamental colorblind principle. In Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), the Supreme Court created a special exception for admissions to colleges and universities. A majority in Grutter accepted the claim that colleges could use racial diversity as a proxy for intellectual diversity — which relies upon the stereotyping assumption that a student’s mindset depends on his or her race.

Yesterday, in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, the Supreme Court finally cut this cancer out of constitutional law. In a monumental 6–3 opinion authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court invalidated the race-linked admissions programs maintained by Harvard and the University of North Carolina. The Court affirmed the foundational constitutional principle of equality under the law, regardless of race. If the Court’s decision is respected and enforced, it is unlikely that any race-linked college-admissions program in any public university or federally funded private university would survive. It is quite likely that no faculty hiring or promotion in which race played a part will be legally permissible. The one sector in American society that had been exempt from legal rules banning the use of race — higher education — will be forced to transform itself.

Do not expect the universities to comply meekly with the Court’s ruling. Many of them had been planning how to evade the expected decision even before it came down. But even if massive resistance is likely (as it was with the Warren Court’s desegregation orders in the 1950s), litigants will keep up the pressure on the universities to purge their selection procedures of hidden, as well as overt, racial preferences. And the Court has laid out clear and firm guidelines for the lower courts to follow in adjudicating those cases. Racial preferences — and any subterfuges designed to conceal such preferences — are forbidden.

Several of the justices in the SFFA majority have long held racial preferences in their crosshairs. “It is a sordid business, this divvying us up by race,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in a 2007 case denying race-conscious policies in K–12 schools. “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” The late Justice Antonin Scalia had even harsher words for race-based affirmative action: “Discrimination on the basis of race is illegal, immoral, unconstitutional, inherently wrong, and destructive of democratic society.” And according to the Court’s sharpest critic of racial preferences, Justice Clarence Thomas, “every time the government places citizens on racial registers and makes race relevant to the provision of burdens or benefits, it demeans us all.”

In reaching its stunning conclusion, the Court did not expressly overturn any existing precedent (though it certainly disemboweled Grutter). Rather, it reaffirmed a standard of judicial review — “strict scrutiny” — for racial classifications that traces back to its decisions in the 1940s and that it has ostensibly applied since then. Strict scrutiny permits the use of race only when a) the government has a “compelling” interest and b) nothing other than the use of race provides a means to achieve that objective. Judged by that standard, nearly all governmental reliance on race is invalid. (There might be incidental exceptions, like keeping certain statistics, say, for public-health purposes.) The strict-scrutiny standard, if honestly applied, ensures that our Constitution is color-blind. Throughout the civil-rights era, judges and lawyers would quip that strict scrutiny is strict in theory, but fatal in fact. Beginning in the late 1970s, however, cases like Bakke, Grutter, and Fisher v. University of Texas purportedly applied strict scrutiny, but in fact used a much more lenient standard toward admissions policies. Yesterday, the Court returned to the classic interpretation of strict scrutiny.

The colorblindness principle is a keystone of the American Constitution, as the Court’s opinion, and the historic concurring opinion of Justice Clarence Thomas, demonstrate at length. That principle found its roots in the Declaration of Independence and the abolitionist movement, triumphed in the Emancipation Proclamation and the Reconstruction amendments, and overcame legalized segregation with Brown v. Board of Education and the civil-rights movement. “The Constitution, as well as the Declaration of Independence, and the sentiments of the founders of the Republic, give us a platform broad enough, and strong enough, to support the most comprehensive plans for the freedom and elevation of all the people of this country, without regard to color, class, or clime,” Frederick Douglass declared in criticizing the infamous Dred Scott decision. As Justice Harlan famously wrote in dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld racial segregation: “Our constitution is colorblind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.” Or, as Justice Scalia put it pithily in his Adarand Contractors v. Peña concurrence, “in the eyes of government, we are just one race here. It is American.”

The decision to prohibit the universities’ use of race will, as a matter of constitutional law, mark the end of the Supreme Court’s misbegotten deviation from colorblindness. The Court has steadily banned racial discrimination in every other part of public life. In Brown v. Board of Education, the Court began dismantling the pernicious government policy of segregated schools. It recited arguments that pressed the “fundamental contention” that “no State has any authority under the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to use race as a factor in affording educational opportunities among its citizens.” (Justice Thomas’s opinion repeatedly cites the government’s brief in the Brown case, in which the Eisenhower administration emphatically endorsed the colorblindness principle.) City of Richmond v. Croson made clear that the 14th Amendment’s insistence on colorblindness prohibited state and local governments from considering race when spending money or awarding contracts. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s opinion explained that racial preferences present the serious “danger that a racial classification is merely the product of unthinking stereotypes or a form of racial politics.” Then, in Adarand Constructors v. Peña, the Court made it crystal clear that this bar also applied to the federal government.

In standing up for the colorblind Constitution yesterday, the Supreme Court has finally closed the book on its own unfortunate history with race. In Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857), the Court’s first effort to solve the nation’s race problem proved a disaster. Chief Justice Roger Taney thought he could head off a looming division between North and South by striking down the Missouri Compromise, holding that blacks could never become U.S. citizens, and forbidding congressional regulation of slavery in the territories. By departing from the Constitution in the name of enlightened elite opinion, Taney only hastened the coming of the Civil War.

The Court disgraced itself again in its next major encounter with race, Plessy v. Ferguson. Plessy upheld not just the concept of “separate but equal” but also the right of governments to enact policies based on race, thereby ushering in the Jim Crow era. In yet a third case, Korematsu, the Court, despite adopting the strict-scrutiny standard, allowed the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II because the government assumed that their ethnicity indicated disloyalty.

The Court sought to restore its reputation in Brown v. Board of Education, which finally put an end to segregation in public schools. It undertook the difficult work of uprooting de jure racism in area after area, from public facilities to employment to government contracts. The elected branches also sought to end official racism, with President Harry Truman desegregating the military, President Dwight D. Eisenhower helping enforce Brown, President John F. Kennedy prohibiting racial discrimination by government contractors, and Congress enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Unfortunately, however, the pursuit of racial equality and integration has mutated into a new ideology of racial diversity. Both now and in the past, the Court has allowed the use of race to remedy discrimination experienced by identifiable victims. But in the context of higher education, where many minority applicants by the 1990s had neither suffered the direct effects of segregation nor been victims of discrimination themselves, racial diversity became an end in itself.

Justice Lewis F. Powell’s 1978 Bakke opinion defended racial diversity as a way of promoting intellectual diversity in classroom discussion — a laudable end aligned with the First-Amendment values of free speech and open inquiry. But anyone familiar with American campuses today can see that free and open debate is getting harder to find. Even liberal academics, like Yale Law School dean Anthony Kronman in his The Assault on American Excellence (2019), acknowledge and deplore the corrupting effects of the post-Bakke pursuit of racial diversity for its own sake.

The Bakke Court split 4–4 between the justices who would have upheld the constitutionality of a quota for admission to a state medical school and four who would have struck it down. Powell provided the decisive fifth vote, ruling that the school’s racial set-aside was not constitutional but also upholding the “Harvard Plan” as a model of constitutionally permissible racial preferences. Powell’s argument pivoted on distinguishing a numerical “quota” from a “goal”: Race could be considered as a “plus factor” in the admissions process because it would contribute to creating greater “diversity” of opinion in the student body. It was a harmless feature of admissions policy, like upgrading a candidate by a notch for being a saxophone player. Powell erroneously maintained that all this was compatible with strict-scrutiny. In Grutter, a majority of the Court tracked Powell’s Bakke opinion, declared the time-limited use of race in college admissions, and hoped that such preferences would last no more than 25 years.

Ironically, Harvard both provided the template for the racial preferences allowed under Bakke and now ruled illegal under SFFA.

Nonetheless, history suggests that even the clear holding in SFFA — like Brown nearly 70 years ago — will be, to paraphrase Churchill, not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning. Massive resistance may arise from an entrenched educational bureaucracy that elevates diversity above all other values, including excellence and merit. Here, just as in Brown, parents and students — who overwhelmingly reject racial preferences — will not be able to eliminate the use of skin color in one fell swoop, but only after a series of cases across the nation.

Striking down the admissions programs at Harvard and UNC is thus the easy part. Both schools admitted that they use overt racial preferences. And the undisputed factual record in both cases confirmed that racial preferences affected admissions decisions. At Harvard, Asian-American applicants had lower acceptance rates than did white students at every academic decile. An Asian-American applicant at the fourth-lowest decile had less than a 1 percent chance of being admitted, while an African-American applicant in the fourth-lowest decile had a 12.8 percent chance. African Americans in that fourth-lowest decile had the same chance of admission as an Asian-American applicant in the top decile of applicants (12.7 percent). The numbers at UNC were equally striking.

The campaign to enforce the colorblindness principle will not end here. Many (though by no means all) universities are as committed to using race in admissions as ever. The history of resistance to Brown suggests that universities will respond to a loss at the Supreme Court not by abandoning their goal of an ideal racial balance but by covertly pursuing the same end through less obvious means. Instead of openly considering skin color in admissions, universities will shift gears to achieve the same racial proportions through facially neutral proxies. Colleges will disguise their use of race behind pretexts such as personality and leadership scores, as Harvard tried to do. At the end of his opinion, Chief Justice Roberts tries to extinguish some of these brush fires before they can start.

Racial discrimination has been a deep stain on our country’s history and a betrayal of its Founding principles. But the constitutional solution to overcoming racism is not to perpetuate it under the guise of helping those once harmed. As Justice Thomas concludes in his concurrence, we must share the “enduring hope that this country will live up to its principles so clearly enunciated in the Decla­ration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States: that all men are created equal, are equal citizens, and must be treated equally before the law.”