A filing this month in the U.S. Supreme Court accuses University of North Carolina leaders of making the same types of arguments that segregationists made against the landmark 1954 ruling Brown v. Board of Education.
The brief from Students for Fair Admissions marks the latest salvo in that group’s battle against UNC’s race-based admissions policy. The nation’s highest court will hear oral arguments in the case on Oct. 31.
The SFFA group challenges UNC’s defense of Grutter v. Bollinger, the 2003 Supreme Court precedent that allowed universities to continue using race in admissions decisions.
“UNC’s argument is not with SFFA; it is with Brown,” wrote lawyers for the group challenging UNC’s admissions policy. “That landmark decision fulfilled the Fourteenth Amendment’s promise by requiring that ‘education … be made available to all on equal terms.’ As the United States explained then, no neutral principle ‘could support a constitutional distinction between universities on the one hand, and public elementary or high schools on the other.’ Yet Grutter draws just that distinction.”
“In defending Grutter’s detour from Brown, UNC makes the same arguments that Brown rejected,” the SFFA brief continued. “It claims that the postbellum era vindicates its reading of the Fourteenth Amendment. It argues that racial classifications make everyone better off. It warns that universities cannot discard race quite yet. And it contends that the legality of its practices should be decided by North Carolinians, not this Court. The segregationists agreed.”
“The path forward is clear. Universities must treat each applicant ‘as an American, and not as a member of a particular … race.’” according to the brief. “‘The rule of stare decisis,’ as the Government stressed in Brown, must give way to ‘the fundamental principle that all Americans, whatever their race or color, stand equal and alike before the law.’ This Court should overrule Grutter; [and] reaffirm the principle of racial neutrality in the Declaration, the Constitution, Title VI, and Brown.”
The UNC admissions case is paired on Oct. 31 with Students for Fair Admissions’ attack on race-based admissions at Harvard University. In a separate filing, SFFA critiqued Harvard’s defense of its policy.
“Harvard used to boast that it was this Court’s ‘model’ for how to use race,” according to the SFFA brief. “It no longer makes that point. Harvard was the model; it just never deserved to be. Once the ‘Harvard Plan’ was challenged in court, litigation revealed that Harvard uses race as a proxy for character, equates race with winning a national award, micromanages tight racial ranges, never considered race neutrality, makes no plans to stop using race, and more. If the Court knew how universities would abuse the limited license it was granting them in 2003, Grutter would have come out the other way.”
“Harvard insists that race is ‘part of who [applicants] are,’ that race ‘“still matters’” in America, and that ignoring race ignores ‘reality.’ Plessy agreed.”
Plessy v. Ferguson was the infamous 1896 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld “separate but equal” accommodations for different racial groups. The 1954 Brown ruling overturned the Plessy precedent.
“Of course, Americans sometimes treat each other differently based on race,” SFFA lawyers wrote. “But Harvard should not be perpetuating that ‘“unfortunat[e]”’ reality. Harvard should be leading by example. ‘The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.’”
A decision in the UNC and Harvard cases is expected by the end of the U.S. Supreme Court’s term next summer.