CHHPDEL HILL, N.C. (HPD) — Once a stick of segregation, the University of North Carolina (UNC) has taken into account the race of applicants to make up for its sordid past and increase the number of black and other minority students on campus.
Its Affirmative Action program, which uses race among other factors to create a diverse student body, is similar to programs at other public and private universities in the United States, but the U.S. Supreme Court now appears poised to restrict its use or abolish it altogether.
The case, which follows June’s annulment of the constitutional right to abortion, offers another test for a court now dominated by conservatives. The question is whether the country’s highest court will move the country’s policies further to the right on another of its most contentious cultural issues.
The nation’s highest court will hear two cases Monday involving UNC and Harvard, respectively the oldest public and private universities in the nation.
The plaintiffs in the cases have lost at every step, with lower courts rejecting their arguments that those schools now discriminate against white and Asian applicants.
But the organization Students for Fair Representation, created by the conservative activist Ed Blum, has always had its sights on the Supreme Court – more conservative now that three nominees by the previous president, Donald Trump, are among its nine justices – as the best forum to reverse more than 40 years of court rulings that have allowed race to be a factor in trying to balance diversity in admissions.
North Carolina’s flagship university at Chapel Hill is a curious place to make the argument.
Its first black students arrived there in 1951 and only thanks to a court order. Until the 1980s, several students reported being subjected to racial epithets and shocking displays of insensitivity, including one case in which a white student asked them to wash his clothes, according to an account by historian David Cecelski included in the case documents. .
Even now, US District Judge Loretta Biggs pointed out in her 2021 ruling, upholding the current program at UNC, that many minorities get into college at a lower rate than white and Asian applicants and that “students from Minorities in the university continue to report that they are confronted with racial epithets, in addition to feeling isolated, excluded, stereotyped and seen as samples in many spaces of the university”.
Defending its program, UNC wrote to the Supreme Court that the school “still has a lot to do.”
On a recent fall day in Chapel Hill, several students spoke about what they see as the pros and cons of Affirmative Action programs in college admissions.
Christina Huang, an 18-year-old college freshman who is already co-director of UNC for Affirmative Action, championed the need for diversity on campus, stating that it enriches the academic environment for all students, even outside the classroom.
“I think there is a negative connotation to Affirmative Action, this idea that you have to meet a quota that hurts Asian-Americans,” said Huang, who is studying political science.
“But culture plays a big role, especially on the UNC campus, because you walk through it and there’s culture everywhere. There are people dressed in traditional clothes, fashion shows, people dancing to different kinds of music, even the food we eat: that is very significant. A lot would be lost if we don’t make sure we have that diversity.”
Students now enjoy picnics under the trees at McCorkle Place, where the Confederate Army Silent Sam statue stood for more than 100 years until it was torn down by protesters in 2018, deeming it a symbol of racism, white supremacy, bigotry and slavery.
Joy Jiang, 19, co-director of the group advocating Affirmative Action, said recent racial tensions on campus — which she described as a negative response to the statue’s toppling — have made many non-white students afraid to openly express their program support.
Jacob James, a 20-year-old white student, says he recognizes the value of diversity, but added: “Diversity on college campuses is good, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of fairness,” added James, director of College Republicans in the UNC. Affirmative Action “unfairly disadvantages some people on the pretext of race,” he added.
James’s comments dovetail with the Blum group’s central argument that the Constitution forbids any consideration of race. Students for Fair Admission alleges that it draws its support from the important case of Brown v. The Board of Education, a 1954 ruling that paved the way for the desegregation of the country’s public schools.
The group argues before Supreme Court justices that Brown rejected many of the arguments the UNC makes. “He argues that racial classifications benefit everyone. He cautions that universities can’t rule out race just yet. And he argues that the legality of the practices should be decided by the people of North Carolina, not this Court. The segregationists agreed,” according to the group’s final statement to the Supreme Court.
Students for Fair Representation also repeatedly uses the Court’s decision in June to strike down abortion rights in favor of their arguments that the country’s highest court should abandon its Affirmative Action precedents.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization indicates the court would be willing to impose an outright ban on consideration of race in college tuition, said Paulette Granberry Russell, president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education.
“The implications go beyond UNC and Harvard. It could result in a different outcome than what we saw in the Bakke case, the Grutter case in 2003, the Fisher cases,” added Granberry Russell, citing previous school tuition cases considered by the court.
Blum, who has worked for years to eliminate racial considerations from school admissions, also backed an unsuccessful lawsuit by Abigail Fisher, a white woman who said she was discriminated against when she tried to get into 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 three Trump nominees and Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first black female supreme justice.
Jackson is out of the Harvard case because he was until recently a member of an advisory board, but he is involved in the UNC case, indicating the court could use that case if it makes a major ruling on Affirmative Action.
All the universities where members of the Supreme Court studied, except one, have asked the highest court in the United States to maintain Affirmative Action.
Six of the judges studied at Harvard. Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Notre Dame and Holy Cross have also joined statements in defense of the Harvard and UNC programs.
Only conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s alma mater, Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, is not involved in the cases.
Nine states already prohibit consideration of race in public college tuition: Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Washington.
In California, the same electorate that gave Joe Biden a 5 million vote margin over Trump in the 2020 presidential election broadly rejected a proposal to revive Affirmative Action.
Public opinion on the subject varies depending on how the question is asked. A 2021 Gallup poll found that 62% of Americans favor Affirmative Action programs for racial minorities, but in a March Pew Research Center poll, 74% of Americans, including majorities of blacks and Hispanics, said race and ethnicity should not be factors in college admissions.
A Supreme Court decision on the cases is not expected before the end of next spring.
Sherman reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Collin Binkley in Washington contributed to this report.