Students For Fair Admissions argue that ‘racial classifications’ are ‘unnecessarily divisive’ and carry ‘stigmatic harm’

Attorney Patrick Strawbridge representing Students For Fair Admissions said, 'this Court's landmark decision in Brown finally and firmly rejected the view that racial classifications have any role to play in providing educational opportunities.'

Justice Clarence Thomas opened the question portion of the arguments by asking solicitor general Ryan Y. Park to define diversity.

Justices of the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Monday regarding the STUDENTS FOR FAIR ADMISSIONS V. UNIVERSITY OF NC case that began at 10 a.m. ET. 

Attorneys Patrick Strawbridge and Cameron T. Norris represented Students For Fair Admissions, solicitor general Ryan Y. Park and attorney David G. Hinojosa represented the University of North Carolina (UNC). 

Strawbridge opened his argument by referring to Brown v. Board of Education.

“[T]his Court’s landmark decision in Brown finally and firmly rejected the view that racial classifications have any role to play in providing educational opportunities,” Strawbridge said. “Whatever factors the government may use, and deciding which jurors to sit, who you may marry, or which primary schools or children can attend. Skin color is not one of them.”

While a student’s race is certainly acceptable to “provid[e] a context for their experience,” Strawbridge acknowledged, the single consideration of race is unconstitutional. 

In response, Justice Elana Kagan referred to the reconstruction era, citing that Congress made concentrated efforts to integrate black students into integrated schools and wondered why race-based admissions were considered a different category by the plaintiffs. 

While Strawbridge agreed that integration was necessary during the Reconstruction period, he said that affirmative action and integration should not be compared as similar. 

Justice Kagan mentioned a Kentucky school that allegedly had a requirement during the Reconstruction era to have 50% black students and 50% white students. 

Strawbridge countered that characterization, however, saying “[t]he actual policy was that they not make distinction among applicants by race. The only requirement from what we could tell is a willingness to actually be educated in an integrated and coeducational environment for a college.”

[RELATED: Ithaca College makes racial database for faculty]

Judges Kagan, Brown, and Sotomayer objected to the idea that race-based admissions were as simple as “checking a box” and argued that non-race-based approaches to admissions would require students to suppress their identities during the admissions process. 

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson argued that race never truly “comes into play” in the admissions process, but Strawbridge pointed out that experts on both sides of the case agreed that race impacted hundreds of student applications. 

“[B]oth experts, in this case, found that race was, in fact, mattering to a number of applications and you can debate between our expert and their expert, whether it’s only 500 or it’s 1700 or 2000 applications a year but it is having an effect,” Strawbridge explained. 

In defense of Affirmative Action, Solicitor General Park opened his arguments touting the benefits of a diverse campus and argued that affirmative action had a major impact in achieving this environment. 

Justice Clarence Thomas began the questioning phase by asking Park to define diversity.

“Mr. Park, I’ve heard the word diversity quite a few times and I don’t have a clue what it means. It seems to mean everything for everyone,” Thomas stated. “I’d like you to give us a specific definition of diversity in the context of the University of North Carolina, and…what the educational benefits of diversity at the University of North Carolina would be.”

Park argued that “there are studies that find that racially diverse groups of people making trading decisions perform at a higher level, make more efficient trading decisions; and the mechanism there is that it reduces groupthink, and people have a longer and more sustained disagreement, and that leads to a more efficient outcome.”

Justice Thomas was unswayed, however, stating, “[w]ell, I guess I don’t put much stock in that because I’ve heard similar arguments in favor of segregation too.”

Justice Samuel Alito pressed Park on an answer regarding the importance of “check[ing] a box.”

“[W]hy do you have these boxes,” Alito asked. “Why do you give the students the opportunity to say, ‘this one thing about me, I’m Hispanic, I’m African American, I’m Asian.’ What does that in itself tell you?”

[RELATED: Supreme Court to hear oral arguments regarding Affirmative Action]

Park pushed back and stated that students are always evaluated on an “individualized basis.”

Alito stated that “you don’t need the boxes at all” then, but Park replied that checking the boxes is necessary for individual assessment. 

“We think that it can in context on an individualized basis, perhaps not in every case, but in some cases, give important information about where that person is coming from and what their experiences have been,” Park said. “There’s no automatic plus factor that’s given but it can matter what an applicant’s racial background was.”

Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked Park when racial preferences would no longer be needed in admissions. 

“[H]ow do you know when you’re done? Justice Alito [asked], if you have exact correlations to…the percentage of the population of a particular group, and you said you’re not done then,” Barrett noted. “So when would the race count? When would you have the endpoint?”

Park replied that “we do not need to reach that point for us to feel that we have met our diversity goals.”

Edward Blum replied to Campus Reform’s request for comment with a prepared statement. Blum said Strawbridge and Norris “argued these cases today with poise and proficiency.”

“It is a moral failure that our most competitive universities place high schoolers on racial registers and tell the world that their skin color affects what they think and know, and what they like and do not like,” Blum stated. 

Campus Reform contacted UNC, the Supreme Court, SFFA, Strawbridge, Norris, and Park, and made the best effort to contact Hinojosa. This article will be updated accordingly. 

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