On Tuesday, the Obama-era affirmative action policy put in place to create more diverse student bodies on college campuses has been reversed by the Trump administration. The reversal was justified by the joint statement put out by the Departments of Education and Justice stating that the guidelines put in place under Obama overstepped the executive branch’s power.
This policy reversal promotes a race-blind—or color blind—system for college admissions. This means that schools will not be allowed to consider race when selecting an applicant.
“The Supreme Court has determined what affirmative action policies are constitutional, and the court’s written decisions are the best guide for navigating this complex issue,” said Betsy Devos, Secretary of Education. “Schools should continue to offer equal opportunities for all students while abiding by the law.”
Devos is right. The Supreme Court has ruled on how race can be allowed to influence admission decisions. Based on Supreme Court cases such as University of California v. Baake, Grutter v. Bollinger, and Fisher v. University of Texas, we can better understand how race is currently being treated in college admissions.
In University of California v. Baake the Supreme Court denounced hard racial quotas (such as reserving spots for certain races) but supported the constitutionality of the use of race as a factor as long as it was not the sole factor considered.
In Grutter v. Bollinger, the Supreme Court upheld the notion of race as a factor, noting that it was not allowed to adversely affect non-minority applicants. This case is important because it applies the concept of “strict scrutiny,” meaning that the court has an interest in the common good that it is serving. In the case of affirmative action and being able to use race as a factor for admission, the court’s goal is to help create more diverse student bodies that represent all Americans.
In Fisher v. University of Texas the Supreme Court chose not to rule again on the issue of race being used as a factor in college admissions, and instead sent the case back to the lower courts.
These rulings have been used since as the standard to which affirmative action policies are held.
The Trump administration’s decision to drop the affirmative action guidelines put in place by the Obama administration comes as no surprise when considering the trajectory of the Supreme Court after Justice Kennedy’s retirement. As President Trump seeks to place a new justice on the court, it is almost certain that he will choose a conservative justice who will help the court overturn the previous rulings set by a less conservatively-skewed collection of justices.
Meanwhile, with some outcry against the reversal of affirmative action, some universities have announced they are committed to maintaining and further creating a diverse body of students.