What we can learn from the Supreme Court’s affirmative action ruling

July 7, 2023
by Karyne Bury, Yolanda Gordon, and Michael Santos

Congress may be headed for recess, but the heat remains on Capitol Hill as we enter summer in July. Just across the street, the Supreme Court (also called “The Court”) issued several high-profile rulings that have impacts on the fabric of our society and the role government plays in it.  

RESULTS’ work focuses on Congress, but other branches of the U.S. government (the Supreme Court and the presidency) provide checks and balances to Congress. The Court decides on certain cases and issues opinions throughout the year while it is in session. These opinions clarify and explain how laws should work, how they apply to us, and how they impact our rights (listed in the Constitution or in state laws). The effect of these Supreme Court “opinions” or decisions can restrict or expand our rights and impact our relationship with the government and even private businesses and institutions.  

On June 28th, the Court decided the case of Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College about whether it is legal to consider race when deciding who to admit into Harvard and other colleges. The majority of justices on the Supreme Court decided race-conscious admissions (also called “affirmative action”) are illegal, striking down Harvard University’s and University of North Carolina’s admissions policies. The Court reasoned that it is unclear if these policies have a reasonable “end point” — a point when the student body would be “diverse enough” to end race-conscious admissions. Therefore, they said, the use of race-conscious admissions with no end point harms other racial groups while unfairly helping others. The Court also said that colleges are still allowed to consider how race may affect someone’s life.  

The impacts of this decision are far-reaching, and most are still unknown. But here at RESULTS, we consider the impact on our work and mission to end poverty. The Court’s decision highlights what we already know: that higher education, especially at prestigious colleges, is a gateway to economic freedom, growth, and power. The Court would not have considered this case if access to these colleges were not so significant. This decision touches on policy and politics beyond higher education, affecting how society talks about race and the role lawmakers play in efforts to eliminate racial discrimination.  

As we know, race and poverty are connected. For generations, people with racially minoritized identities (e.g., Black, Indigenous, People of Color) have been denied opportunities like attending college and owning a home (e.g., through redlining) that give white and other dominant culture identities a “leg up” to success. Race-neutral or race-blind policies (which is what this Court pushed for with this decision) can still help address poverty but will fall short on ending it. Poverty exists because we haven’t done the job of eliminating discrimination and other forms of oppression that perpetuate it.  

Of course, there is a clear danger to assuming race equals poverty. Not all people affected by poverty have racially minoritized identities, and not all people with racially minoritized identities experience poverty. To assume either would also be racist and harmful and perpetuates the destructive narrative of the “poor, downtrodden minority” who needs saving. However, when systems of power and access — like higher education — have racial prejudice built into their history and structure, ignoring race as a factor in admissions only allows those imbalances to continue. In other words, “race-neutral policies,” because they sustain the routines that have always resulted in admitting more wealthy, white students, act as affirmative action for white people.  

Where do we go from here? Now what? The outcome of this decision will be felt by so many for generations to come. And for sure, it will have a big effect on politics and policymaking. This decision opens up a new era forcing us to reexamine the intersection of race and poverty and what it means for RESULTS’ effort to achieve economic justice in the tax code. In the meantime, we will continue to uphold our values — we cannot end poverty until we end all forms of oppression.  

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