Supreme Court Affirmative Action Ban Sparks Debate: Can Life in America be Separated from the Idea of Race?

Landerholm Circle roundabout in summer
Landerholm Circle courtesy of Bellevue College

The Supreme Court decided that race should no longer be a factor in college admissions on June 29 of this year when they banned affirmative action. The cases, as described in the Court’s documents, are titled Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, and Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. University of North Carolina. However, many are discussing a question: can the implications of racism and race ever truly be separated from modern American society?

This Supreme Court decision will not have an impact on students applying to colleges in Washington State, which made affirmative action illegal in 1998 through Initiative 200. This initiative declares: “The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or groups on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education or public contracting.”

When asked if Bellevue College has a stance on affirmative action or is doing anything to combat it, a BC admissions staff member said, “Not that I know of, but leadership would be the individuals who would develop a plan and then myself being the admission adviser…they would let me know how to precede going forward. So I haven’t been informed by leadership as to what they’re doing, but I recommend checking in with other offices such as the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Office (ODEI) because I bet they are discussing this at this time.” We are still waiting to hear back from the ODEI to see if they are doing anything going forward or have any comments on this case. In the future, there may be more updates on Bellevue College’s response to affirmative action.

Affirmative action goes a step beyond the Civil Rights Act and Title VI, which protects anyone in the United States from discrimination of “race, color, or national origin” under “any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Instead, affirmative action acknowledges systematic racism and white privilege by prioritizing minorities who are underrepresented in an attempt to diversify college campuses.

Whether it is unfair to non-minorities or justified in order to create equality is a widely debated subject and the premise of the recent Supreme Court cases. It is reminiscent of the argument for reparations for African Americans, which is supported by the NAACP. Both are attempts to compensate for wrongs made by America.

The group Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) argued that including race in college applications violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court used this quote from Rice v. Cayetano as evidence in the recent case summary: “[D]istinctions between citizens solely because of their ancestry are by their very nature odious to a free people whose institutions are founded upon the doctrine of equality.” 

Does this mean that Ivy League colleges will also have to do away with legacy admissions? This is a system that many people are opposed to, and it’s in the spotlight again.

In 2010, Harvard posted a Youtube video in which a student references the impact of American slavery on African Americans, supporting affirmative action. She makes the point that “…[W]hite people have had their own affirmative action in this country for more than 400 years. It’s called nepotism and quid-pro-quo. So, there’s nothing wrong with correcting the injustice and discrimination that’s been known to Black people for 400 years.”

Justice Kentanji Brown Jackson, also a Harvard alumni, would agree. She dissented with the Court’s decision and said, “The race-based gaps that first developed centuries ago are echoes from the past that still exist today.” 

On Twitter, President Biden shared a clip where he stated, “What I propose for consideration is a new standard where colleges take into account the adversity a student has overcome when selecting among qualified applicants.” This seems to be the president’s suggestion for creating a more balanced admissions process without directly including race. 

Can life in America be separated from the idea of race? Some think so, and others disagree. This is a fundamental theme in understanding American politics and the topic of affirmative action. We will have to see whether diversity, especially in more selective colleges, goes down after the banning of affirmative action, and what other implications will occur.