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KBJ Gets In Heated Exchange With Lawyer Over Race-Based College Admissions

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OPINION: This article may contain commentary which reflects the author's opinion.


The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Monday to the University of North Carolina and Harvard’s race-based admissions. Both UNC and Harvard have been sued over allegations of discrimination against Asian and white Americans, with some arguing their civil rights were violated in the admissions process.

Newly sworn-in Justice Ketanji Brown said she fears for “equal protections” for minority college applicants if the Supreme Court overturns affirmative action.

“What I’m worried about is that the rule that you’re advocating, that in the context of a holistic review process, [a] university can take into account and value all of the other background and personal characteristics of other applicants, but they can’t value race,” Jackson told attorney Patrick Strawbridge, who argued on behalf of the conservative organization Students for Fair Admissions.

This set off an interesting back-and-forth.

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“Why is it that race is doing anything different to your members’ ability to compete in this environment,” in comparison to a number of other factors involved in admissions, Jackson asked Patrick Strawbridge, the lawyer representing Students for Fair Admissions.

“It’s in the context of all of the other factors…the admissions office is looking at,” Jackson added. “You haven’t demonstrated or shown one situation in which all they look at is race. They’re looking at the full person.”

Jackson argued that race is almost never the only factor in a college admission decision. However, he argued that the fact it is one factor that tips the scales unfairly for at least some applicants.

“It makes no sense in a zero-sum game. If we are going to consider race, and we argue that a racial classification – which is highly disfavored at law because of its necessarily invidious nature – is going to be used, it clearly must be doing some work,” Strawbridge told Jackson.

Strawbridge argued schools that use affirmative action are “making distinctions upon who it will admit at least in part on the race of the applicant. Some races get a benefit. Some races do not get a benefit.”

When asked by Justice Samuel Alito about what scenarios diversity could be mentioned in a college application essay while remaining within race-neutral standards, Strawbridge contended there would be some exceptions to allow diversity to be considered.

“Suppose that a student is an immigrant from Africa and moves to a rural part of western North Carolina … and I had to deal with cultural differences, would that be permissible?” Alito asked. In response, Strawbridge said it would be permissible since race was not part of the question.

Listen below:

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Earlier this year, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas made comments appearing to suggest he supported striking down affirmative action.

“I note that racial engineering does in fact have insidious consequences,” Thomas wrote, concerning a challenge to an affirmative action program at the University of Texas. “There can be no doubt that the University’s discrimination injures white and Asian applicants who are denied admission because of their race. But I believe the injury to those admitted under the University’s discriminatory admissions program is even more harmful,” Thomas previously argued.

“Blacks and Hispanics admitted to the University as a result of racial discrimination are, on average, far less prepared than their white and Asian classmates,” Thomas added.

“The University admits minorities who otherwise would have attended less selective colleges where they would have been more evenly matched,” he argued. “But, as a result of the mismatching, many blacks and Hispanics who likely would have excelled at less elite schools are placed in a position where underperformance is all but inevitable because they are less academically prepared than the white and Asian students with whom they must compete. Setting aside the damage wreaked upon the self-confidence of these overmatched students, there is no evidence that they learn more at the university than they would have learned at other schools for which they were better prepared. Indeed, they may learn less.”

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