Tuesday, March 28

Opinion | In Harvard affirmative action case, SCOTUS should follow precedent


The Supreme Court will hear arguments Monday about whether it should overrule another long-held precedent on a hot-button issue: affirmative action in higher education. In several landmark cases over the past half-century, the court has said that colleges and universities may take race into account — in a limited way — as they consider students for admission. But an activist group is suing Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, arguing that race-conscious admissions policies violate the principles of equality enshrined in Brown v. Board of Education and the 14th Amendment — and the court’s conservative supermajority might take the chance to strike at affirmative action.

In 2003, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, writing the majority opinion upholding affirmative action in Grutter v. Bollinger, expressed the hope that race-conscious admissions would be unnecessary 25 years hence. Unfortunately, deep racial disparities in educational attainment—and other evidence—show American society has not changed as much as Ms. O’Connor hoped. Absent modest race-conscious admissions policies, colleges and universities say they would not be able to construct educational communities that benefit from substantial diversity.

Affirmative action is a fraught issue on which people of good will disagree. But the court has already been far too aggressive in overturning major precedents merely because its membership — not reality — has seen dramatic shifts. The justices should resist doing so again.

Those challenging race-conscious admissions in this case do not argue that colleges and universities receive no benefits from building diverse student bodies. Rather, they claim that universities such as Harvard “award mammoth racial preferences to African Americans and Hispanics,” while discriminating against Asian Americans, resulting in “anti-Asian stereotyping, race-obsessed campuses, declines in ideological diversity, and more.” They also charge that universities could achieve sufficient diversity by giving more of an admissions “tip” to students of low socioeconomic status.

Also Read  'Outsider' in Nevada's GOP Senate primary surges, rattling Trump's pick

George F. Will: Colleges will racially discriminate no matter how the Supreme Court rules

The universities—and two lower courts—disagree with the challengers’ assertions. They pointed out that studies showing discrimination against Asian Americans focused too much on comparing students’ grades and test scores, neglecting to account for other factors that helped determine who got admitted. Harvard’s process considers a small “plus” race, benefiting only students who were already highly competitive. Meanwhile, they said, attempting to achieve diversity by considering students’ socioeconomic status would result in classes that were less impressive in academic, extracurricular and personal achievement.

Underlying the arguments is a disagreement about the intent of the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law. The challengers contend that the amendment requires the government and related entities to adhere to strict racial neutrality. But the universities have the better argument, pointing out that those who wrote the 14th Amendment rejected language that would support such an absolutist reading. “Both state and federal authorities at the time enacted race-conscious measures to promote African Americans’ equal participation in society,” they wrote. The amendment exists to enable Congress and other institutions to combat racial disparities — not as a directive to ignore them.

There is still room for disagreement about whether this reading of the 14th Amendment authorizes race-conscious admissions, and under what terms. The court has said that the circumstances under which race-conscious policies may proceed should be extremely narrow. But that is the most important point: The court has already spoken. After overturning Roe v. Wade in June, eviscerating another long-held precedent — absent showing glaring error in the court’s previous reasoning — would be reckless. The integrity of the court is in peril.

Also Read  Pac-12 expansion, realignment live updates, rumors for conference

The Post’s View | About the Editorial Board

Editorials represent the views of The Washington Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based on the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Deputy Editorial Page Editor Karen Tumulty; Deputy Editorial Page Editor Ruth Marcus; Associate Editorial Page Editor Jo-Ann Armao (education, DC affairs); Jonathan Capehart (national politics); Lee Hockstader (immigration; issues affecting Virginia and Maryland); David E. Hoffman (global public health); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Molly Roberts (technology and society); and Stephen Stromberg (elections, the White House, Congress, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care).


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *