What The Supreme Court Decision On Affirmative Action Really Means

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday in favor of the University of Texas, Austin’s admissions program that takes applicants’ race into account. Only seven justices voted on the case because Justice Elena Kagan worked on it during her time as United States solicitor general, allowing for a 4-3 decision that evaded the complications of a tie. So, what does the Supreme Court’s affirmative action decision mean?

Here’s the backstory: the University of Texas, Austin considers potential students’ race (among other factors, like academics) when admitting the last quarter of each freshman class. Texas high schoolers who graduate in the top 8 percent of their class are guaranteed admission to the public college (though at the time of the original case it was 10 percent), which typically fills most of the freshman class on its own. Fisher v. University of Texas involved Abigail Fisher, a white Texas native who didn’t graduate in the top 10 percent at her high school and wasn’t admitted to the university in 2008. Although the school stood by its decision, saying Fisher wouldn’t have been admitted even if race wasn’t a factor, Fisher claimed students of color with worse grades and test scores got in because of unfair affirmative action policies.

Fisher has since graduated from Louisiana State University, so a ruling either way wouldn’t have affected her college career.

Essentially, SCOTUS ruled that the University of Texas, Austin’s use of affirmative action — favoring people who typically suffer from discrimination — is totally OK. While opponents of such policies consider it reverse racism (which, let’s be real, doesn’t exist), the Court declared that the college’s admission process complied with previous rulings that allow schools to be conscious of race in order to foster diverse campuses.

In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy quoted a landmark 1950 desegregation case, saying:

“A university is in large part defined by those intangible ‘qualities which are incapable of objective measurement but which make for greatness’ … Considerable deference is owed to a university in defining those intangible characteristics, like student body diversity, that are central to its identity and educational mission.”

Rather than declaring that affirmative action is needed to give students of color an advantage when applying to college, the ruling upheld the practice in the name of diversity, which has educational benefits for all students. So, the University of Texas, Austin and schools across the country can continue considering applicants’ race when deciding who to let onto their campuses in order to create classrooms full of differing backgrounds and viewpoints.

Eight states have banned race-based affirmative action, leading some schools to consider socioeconomic status instead of race to help ensure a diverse school. Despite the fact that people of color are more likely to live in poverty than white Americans, there are still far more poor white people in the country than poor people of color, meaning this type of affirmative action doesn’t necessarily lead to a racially diverse campus.

While the Supreme Court ruling won’t force schools to consider race, it will allow the practice to continue.