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UCLA Civil Rights Project Decries Supreme Court Ruling on Affirmative Action

By John McDonald

“A Day of Shame for the Nation”

The Civil Rights Project at UCLA has long played an active and important role in the pursuit of Civil Rights for those too often denied their full benefit. Founded in 1996 at Harvard University before moving to UCLA in 2007, its mission is to create a new generation of research in social science and law on the critical issues of civil rights and equal opportunity for racial and ethnic groups in the United States. The Project works to renew the civil rights movement by bridging the worlds of ideas and action, to be a trusted source of intellectual capital within that movement, and to deepen the understanding of the challenges that must be addressed to achieve racial and ethnic equity as society moves through the great transformation of the 21st century.  

UCLA Civil Rights co-director Patricia Gándara

A large part of the research of the Civil Rights Project has focused intently on the re-segregation of minority students in high-poverty schools and they have played an active role in the battle to protect the benefits of race-conscious admissions in higher education. In its 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision upholding affirmative action, the Supreme Court cited the Civil Rights Project’s research. In this week’s ruling striking down affirmative action, their research on school segregation - Harming our Common Future: America's Segregated Schools 65 Years after Brownwas cited in the dissent of Justice Sotomayor  (joined by Justices Kagan and Brown) noting that the share of intensely segregated schools that enroll 90-100 percent racial minorities has sharply increased.

UCLA Civil Rights co-directors, Patricia Gándara and Gary Orfield have spent their lives in pursuit of Civil Rights. Calling the Court’s ruling on affirmative action “a day of shame for the nation,” they issued the following statement decrying the decision.

Statement from UCLA Civil Rights Project on Supreme Court Affirmative Action Ruling 

June 29, 2023 

Today’s ruling on affirmative action makes the Supreme Court’s majority the nation’s college admissions office and sharply reduces opportunities for students of color in the institutions that train America’s leaders. The decision is a major step backward toward a more rigidly stratified society where Black, Latino, and Native students face seriously unequal opportunities and American leadership will become more segregated. It is a purely political decision and one in which the Court has ignored legal precedent, research-based evidence, and the advice of leading civil rights groups. The Court has told American higher education that the only thing it cannot consider in admissions is the only thing that will sustain reasonable integration in our great universities. This is a day of shame for a nation that has made only stumbling steps toward racial equality. American colleges, educators and policymakers must do all they can to limit the harm that will surely ensue. 

Gary Orfield photo

UCLA Civil Rights co-director Gary Orfield

Today’s Supreme Court decision rejects what the nation’s colleges have learned in the last sixty years of affirmative action as well as precedents firmly established since the 1978 Bakke decision. It rejects the findings of decades of serious research showing the large benefits of diverse colleges for the education of all groups of students. That research proved that no workable, alternative methods exist to achieve significant campus diversity. 

The ruling gives a huge victory to an anti-civil rights organization financed with dark money that tried and failed twice to make the same basic arguments rejected by the Supreme Court as recently as 2015. This is not law, not evidence, it is power gained by extremists. This same group played a central role in selecting the justices named by President Trump. Those appointments are the only major thing that changed as the Court made the voluntary efforts of most selective colleges unconstitutional. 

The precedents favoring affirmative action were clear, and the facts of unequal opportunity only became more extreme in the pandemic as students of color fell further behind. Black and Latino students are concentrated in inadequate schools, segregated by race and poverty that prepare students unequally. This decision is essentially political—the result of the election of a president supported by a minority of U.S. voters, and the political manipulations in the U.S. Senate to steal a seat on the high court from President Obama and violate its own principles in seating another Justice just before an election. It is a political decision that severely damages a limited but very important policy that had taken a substantial step in integrating the leadership of America’s most important institutions and professions. 

Since Brown, we have never gotten close to a place of equal opportunity, but it was much better than the long history of virtual exclusion of students of color from leading universities that persisted until affirmative action began in the 1960s. Today’s decision is reckless and dangerous to the future of a profoundly unequal society. It reflects a deeply polarized country and the determination of one group to eliminate important rights for groups of students who are the majority population in a great many regions of the United States. 

When an extreme, anti-civil rights majority decided to eliminate many of the limited rights of Blacks in free states in the notorious Dredd Scott decision, Abraham Lincoln said that the law must be obeyed but that it was illegitimate, that the law was not settled, and that Americans should work very hard to change it. As professors who have seen the great success of students admitted through affirmative action and their contributions to our society, and witnessed how students learn a great deal from students of other backgrounds, we know today’s ruling will be perceived as a hostile act by many students and faculty of color. It will limit the hopes of students struggling in extremely segregated and unequal schools that do not offer a fair opportunity to prepare for college. 

On a personal note, we are two of many who have worked for civil rights over the last sixty years. After the great victories of the 1960s in the civil rights laws and court decisions, we have witnessed the severe re-segregation of schools as the Supreme Court abandoned that effort, major blows to voting rights, the persistence of stark housing segregation, the vast 

difference in family resources by income, a criminal justice system that has locked up millions of young people of color, and the re-emergence of openly racist national politics. The decision from this far-right Court foretells other reverses to come for the rights of young Black, Latino, and Native students. 

In the face of this decision, American colleges and policymakers must do all they can to limit the harm that will surely ensue, most rapidly in the states which are hostile to civil rights on other dimensions. We must work hard to reverse the dramatically unequal preparation for college in our segregated, concentrated poverty high schools where there is often no workable path to college preparation. We must deal with the highly inadequate financial aid system that does not make it possible for many high-achieving students of color to go to college. Congress should give colleges and high schools major resources to address these issues. The experience in our nine states without affirmative action (before this decision) indicates that efforts recognizing some of the embedded dimensions of racial inequality have been small and inadequate. They must be considerably larger, and we need more private support for outreach and aid. It is time for a new agenda and serious discussion of providing the large resources needed to lessen, to the extent possible, the damage done today. In the longer run, those committed to racial equality must work to reverse this destructive decision. 

The statement is available on the Civil Rights Project website, here.