Race-Sensitive University Admissions Safe for Now: Supreme Court Rejects Public School Assignment Plans Based on Race

Last Thursday the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that school districts in Seattle and Louisville could not use the factor of race to assign students to public schools. Many observers see this ruling as a bitter betrayal of the 1954 landmark desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

The Seattle school district permitted students to choose which school they wanted to attend. But when more students wished to attend a particular school than there were open slots, racial assignments were used to maintain diversity. In Louisville the school district policy was that public schools have at least 15 percent but no more than 50 percent African-American enrollment. To meet these goals, some students, based solely on their race, were assigned to schools often far from their homes.

Although the Court ruled against the use of race in school assignments, the decision was a relief to some in the higher education community. It was feared that the Court would readdress its 2003 ruling in Grutter which affirmed the “narrowly tailored” use of race in admissions decisions in higher education.

In fact, the justices referred to Grutter as binding precedent throughout the opinion, concurring opinion, and the dissents.

In the recent case handed down this past week, Parents Involved in Community School v. Seattle School District No. 1 et al., Chief Justice John Roberts, delivering the opinion of the Court, stated, “Before Brown, schoolchildren were told where they could and could not go to school based on the color of their skin. The school districts in these cases have not carried the heavy burden of demonstrating that we should allow this again, even for very different reasons. The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

In a passionate dissent, Justice Stephen Bryer accused the majority of ignoring past precedent which permitted hundreds of school districts nationwide to use racial remedies to achieve racial integration. Bryer stated that the Seattle and Louisville plans were so “narrowly tailored” that it would be next to impossible to come up with any plan that used race as a factor that would be acceptable to the Court’s new majority. Justice Bryer also ridiculed the majority for distinguishing the state’s “compelling interest” in promoting racial diversity in the Grutter case from a similar compelling interest in these cases. He stated, “I do not believe the Constitution could possibly find ‘compelling’ the provision of a racially diverse education for a 23-year-old law student but not for a 13-year-old high school pupil.”

At the very least, the ruling gives comfort to various conservative and indeed antiblack groups that are intent on pushing blacks down into second-tier institutions. Although the decision appears to uphold the Grutter decision, the ruling will tend to have a further dampening effect on the use of race in the college admissions process.  The opinion of the Court leads to the conclusion that the current justices will not permit race to be used as the deciding factor in any college or university admissions decision. It seems almost certain that only the most “narrowly tailored” use of race as one of a multitude of factors in an admissions decision will be permitted.

Colleges and universities that continue to admit considerably higher percentages of black applicants than whites, and those educational institutions that continue to admit black students with standardized test scores and grade point averages significantly below those of white students who are rejected, may now feel pressure to scale back in their efforts to increase racial diversity in their student bodies. As a result, university admissions officers, who almost without exception favor race-sensitive admissions, will have to tread more carefully than before when they consider race in their decisions for fear of generating new litigation. 

One thing that is absolutely clear is that the Supreme Court of 2003 that decided the Grutter case was more friendly to race-conscious programs than the current, more conservative, Court.