Affirmative action under threat as High Court hears UNC case

By MARK SHERMAN and HANNAH SCHOENBAUM, Associated Press

CHAPEL HILL, NC (AP) — Once a bastion of segregation, the University of North Carolina now considers race to offset its sordid history and to increase the number of black students and other underrepresented minorities on campus.

Its affirmative action program, using race among many factors to build a diverse student body, is similar to plans in place at other selective public and private institutions.

But a Supreme Court that has twice blessed race-conscious college admissions programs in the past 19 years now seems poised to restrict their use or ban them altogether.

The case, following the overturning of the nearly 50-year precedent of Roe v Wade in June, offers another test of whether the now conservative-dominated court will shift the nation’s policies to the right on a another of its most controversial cultural issues.

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The court is hearing two cases on Monday, involving UNC and Harvard, the nation’s oldest public and private universities, respectively.

The universities’ program challengers have lost at every step, as lower courts have thrown out their claims that the schools discriminate against white and Asian American applicants.

But Students for Fair Representation, the creation of conservative activist Ed Blum, has always pointed to the highest court in the land, more conservative now that former President Donald Trump’s three nominees are among the nine justices, as the best forum to go back more than 40 years. court decisions that allow race to be a factor among others in admissions.

North Carolina’s flagship university at Chapel Hill is a curious place to make this case.

The first black students did not arrive until 1951, and only by court order. In the 1980s, students reported experiencing racial slurs and astonishing displays of insensitivity, including when a white classmate asked them to do laundry, according to an account by historian David Cecelski included in court documents.

Even now, U.S. District Judge Loretta Biggs noted in her 2021 ruling affirming the university’s program, underrepresented minorities are admitted to UNC at lower rates than white and Asian American applicants and ” minority students in college still report facing racial epithets, as well as feeling isolated, ostracized, stereotyped, and considered tokens in a number of college spaces.

Defending its program, North Carolina wrote in its lead Supreme Court brief that the school “continues to have a lot of work to do.”

On a recent bright fall day in Chapel Hill, students talked about what they see as the pros and cons of affirmative action in college admissions.

Christina Huang, an 18-year-old freshman from West Milford, New Jerseywho is co-director of UNC for Affirmative Action, said diversity on campus enriches the learning environment for all students, even outside of the classroom.

“I think there’s a negative connotation to affirmative action and this idea that it’s a quota and it hurts Asian Americans,” said Huang, a first-generation college student who studies the political Sciences. “But culture plays such a big role, especially on the UNC campus, because you walk around and there’s culture everywhere. There are people in traditional clothes, fashion shows, people dancing to their different types of music, even the foods we eat – it’s so meaningful. You would lose so much if we didn’t make sure we had that diversity.

Students now picnic under the swollen trees of McCorkle Place where the Confederate Silent Sam statue stood for more than 100 years until protesters toppled it in 2018.

Joy Jiang, a sophomore from Harrisburg, North Carolina, and co-director of the affirmative action group, said recent racial tensions on campus which she described as a backlash after the statue fell, spooked some students of color to vocalize their support for affirmative action.

Jacob James, 20, of Robersonville, North Carolina, recognized the value of diversity. “Diversity on college campuses is good, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of equity,” said James, president of UNC College Republicans. Affirmative action, he said, “unfairly disadvantages some people over others because of their race.”

James’ comment echoes the main point of Blum’s group, which is that the Constitution prohibits any consideration of race. Students for Fair Admission said it relied on the seminal case Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 decision that paved the way for the desegregation of the country’s public schools.

The group told the judges that Brown rejected many of the arguments made by UNC. “He argues that racial classifications make everyone better off. He warns that universities cannot yet rule out race. And he argues that the legality of his practices should be decided by the people of North Carolina, not this Court. The segregationists accepted,” according to the group’s final brief to the Supreme Court.

Students for Fair Representation also repeatedly uses the June decision to strike down constitutional abortion protections from Roe v. Wade to bolster his arguments that the court should abandon its affirmative action precedents.

The abortion decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization strongly suggests the court would be willing to impose a “total ban” on considering race in college admissions, said Paulette Granberry Russell, president of the National Association of Diversity Leaders in Higher Education. .

“The implications extend far beyond UNC and Harvard. It could very well end up with a different outcome than what we saw in the Bakke case, the Grutter case in 2003, the Fisher cases,” Granberry Russell said, citing past University Admissions cases from the court.

Blum, who worked for years to rid college admissions of racial considerations, was also behind the ultimately lost lawsuit on behalf of Abigail Fisher, a white woman who claimed she had been discriminated against. explained his rejection by the University of Texas.

That case was decided just six years ago, but the composition of the court has changed significantly since then, with the addition of the three Trump appointees and Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, the court’s first black woman.

Jackson is absent from the Harvard case because she was on an advisory board until recently. But she’s involved in the North Carolina case, which strongly suggests the court would use that case if it ends up making a major affirmative action decision.

All but one of the US colleges and universities the judges attend urge the court to preserve race-conscious admissions.

Four judges attended Harvard Law School and two were students there. Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Notre Dame and Holy Cross also joined the briefs in defending Harvard and UNC admissions plans.

Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s only undergraduate alma mater, Rhodes College, Memphis, Tennesseeis not involved in business.

In California, the same electorate that gave President Joe Biden a 5 million vote margin over Trump in 2020 easily rejected a proposal to revive affirmative action.

Public opinion on the subject varies depending on how the question is posed. A 2021 Gallup Poll found that 62% of Americans support affirmative action programs for racial minorities. But in a Pew Research Center survey in March, 74% of Americans, including majorities of black and Latino respondents, said race and ethnicity should not be considered in college admissions. .

A decision in the affirmative action cases is not expected until late spring.

Sherman reported from Washington. AP Education Writer Collin Binkley in Washington contributed to this report.

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