Affirmative Action on Trial: The Supreme Showdown (GP Topics: Inequality, Education)

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The recent ruling by the US Supreme Court striking down race-conscious student admissions programs at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina (UNC) has sparked a significant debate surrounding affirmative action and its implications for diversity in higher education. This landmark decision, which comes after previous Supreme Court rulings supporting affirmative action, has far-reaching consequences for students and institutions across the country.

Affirmative action, in the context of higher education admissions, refers to policies and practices that aim to promote diversity and address historical underrepresentation of certain racial and ethnic groups. It involves considering an applicant’s race or ethnicity as one of several factors in the admissions process, alongside academic achievements, extracurricular activities, and other relevant qualifications. The goal is to create a more inclusive learning environment that reflects the diverse backgrounds and experiences of the broader society. Affirmative action has long been a contentious issue in US education, with proponents arguing that it is necessary to address historical inequities and create a more inclusive learning environment. However, critics claim that such policies are themselves discriminatory and violate the principle of equal protection under the law.

The court’s conservative majority, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing the majority opinion, emphasised the importance of equal protection and argued that the admissions programs at Harvard and UNC could not be reconciled with this constitutional guarantee. However, it is worth noting that the decision does not prohibit universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected their life.

The ruling raises important questions about the future of affirmative action and its role in promoting diversity on campuses. Many institutions of higher education, corporations, and military leaders have long supported affirmative action as a means of ensuring a talent pool with diverse perspectives and experiences. They argue that it is not only about rectifying racial inequities but also about creating a richer learning environment and preparing students for the diverse workforce and armed forces of the United States.

The dissenting liberal justices, including Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, expressed concerns about the decision, characterising it as a rollback of progress and a reinforcement of color-blindness as a constitutional principle in a segregated society. They argued that the ruling fails to acknowledge the ongoing need for affirmative action to address systemic inequalities.

The implications of this ruling go beyond the specific cases of Harvard and UNC. Approximately 40 percent of US colleges and universities consider race in some manner in their admissions processes. The decision is likely to have a significant impact on admissions practices across the country, leading to a reevaluation of policies and potential changes in enrolment patterns.

For A Level General Paper students, this case can be utilised in Paper 1 Essay questions relating to societal inequalities, or about marginalised groups. The eradication of affirmative action can be used as an example to highlight the persistence of systemic inequalities, and in this case, ironically under the guise of battling racial discrimination. You can evaluate how far it actually tackles racial discrimination by examining the level of privilege other races have, and that affirmative action actually serves to better level the playing field. Privileged races can utilise their legacy and donations to secure a spot, taking away the focus on grades and ability. Affirmative action serves to seek out students of minority races who have the capabilities and potential to excel, a place in tertiary education, when they otherwise would not know they could even contest for a spot. So one can argue that affirmative action needs to be in place to counterbalance white privilege, the abolishment of it is largely harmful to diverse communities in the states.

As the gavel falls and the dust settles, the Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action leaves us with more questions than answers. The battle between equal protection and diversity rages on, with neither side willing to wave a white flag of surrender. Only time will tell how this decision shapes the educational landscape, as colleges and universities across the nation reassess their admissions policies.

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