After the Supreme Court ruled that affirmative action in higher education admissions is unconstitutional, President Joe Biden strongly criticized the court and departed from its view by claiming that race-based admission practices were never discriminatory.
The Court ruled in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina (UNC) that race cannot be directly considered by universities as a factor in whether to admit a student. Speaking from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Biden claimed that the practice was “so misunderstood” that opponents believed that it enabled unqualified students to be admitted.
“Many people wrongly believe that affirmative action allows unqualified students to be admitted ahead of qualified students. This is not how college admissions work,” Biden said. “Rather, colleges set out standards for admissions and every student has to meet those standards. Then, and only then, after first meeting the qualifications required by the school, do colleges look at other factors in addition to their grades, such as race.”
This description of affirmative action was repudiated by the Court, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing that Harvard and UNC’s use of the practice “measure[s] the racial composition of their classes using racial categories that are plainly overbroad … arbitrary or undefined … or underinclusive.” It also pointed out how the practice requires “stereotyping” by holding that “it engages in the offensive and demeaning assumption that [students] of a particular race, because of their race, think alike,” which was contrary to the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment.
Biden said that colleges and universities should “take into account the adversity a student has overcome when selecting among qualified applicants,” echoing an argument made by legal scholars that the ruling narrowly allows race to be considered indirectly via essays and statements that describe individual hardship connected to one’s racial background.
Biden quoted a line from the court’s opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, that “nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an [applicant’s] discussion of how race has affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, or inspiration, or otherwise.” In the sentence immediately after that quotation, Roberts wrote that “despite the dissent’s assertion to the contrary, universities may not simply establish through application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today.”
In closing, Biden said that he would be “directing the Department of Education to analyze what practices help build a more inclusive and diverse student bodies.” He singled out “practices like legacy admissions,” referring to colleges granting the children and relatives of alumni preferential admissions, which he said “expand privilege instead of opportunity.”
“Discrimination still exists in America,” Biden repeated three times in the speech. “This decision does not change that.”
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