Supreme Court

Houston-area officials say Supreme Court’s affirmative action decision a ‘profound setback’

The decision could end the ability of colleges and universities, public and private, to do what most say they still need to do: consider race as one of many factors in deciding which of the qualified applicants is to be admitted.


Jacquelyn Martin

The Supreme Court rejected race-conscious admissions in higher education on Thursday, overturning more than 40 years of legal precedent.

The ruling in two cases, one involving Harvard University and the other the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, hands opponents of affirmative action a major victory.

The decision reversed decades of precedent upheld over the years by narrow court majorities that included Republican-appointed justices. It could end the ability of colleges and universities, public and private, to do what most say they still need to do: consider race as one of many factors in deciding which of the qualified applicants is to be admitted.

In the Harvard case, the court considered whether the school discriminated against Asian American students in the admissions process. With UNC, the court considered whether the school was using race-conscious admissions in a limited enough manner. The conservative activist group Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) was behind both the Harvard and the UNC cases.

This comes less than a decade since the last time the court ruled on affirmative action; in 2016 it ruled that colleges could consider race in admissions.

MORE: Rice University official discusses how ruling will affect DEI on campus (Houston Matters)


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Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner compared the court’s decision to its previous decision that found racial bias in ordering new maps for Alabama’s congressional districts.

“Yet, today’s decisions would have us believe we have solved racial inequality in higher education,” he said in an emailed statement. “Today’s decision is even more concerning given the recent actions in Texas to outlaw Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at public universities under Senate Bill 17. Even with these needed DEI initiatives, the racial gap in higher education, as Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson said in her dissent, is ‘indisputable.'”

Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis said the decision is a “profound setback” for the nation.

“I am the product of affirmative action,” he said in a statement. “I had the opportunity to receive a top-tier education, but the rest was up to me. That same opportunity has now been stolen from millions of young people from marginalized communities who still grapple with the effects of systemic racism. This is yet another reminder that advances and victories will not last if we don't sustain the fight. The arc of the moral universe doesn't bend on its own. It's taken constant struggle and sacrifice to make advances—and it will take the same to sustain those advances and push forward. This setback will not deter us from pursuing a more just and equitable future for all.”

Former Texas Congressman and Republican presidential candidate Will Hurd said in a tweet that with or without affirmative action, there is still income inequality because of education inequality.

“With or without affirmative action, we are failing to prepare too many of our black and brown students for higher education. That's the problem. We have income inequality because we have education inequality. Our elementary, middle, and high schools need the right support from state governments and the federal government... otherwise this is going to continue to plague our kids for generations to come.”

Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee, said the decision was a “national travesty” and said that the U.S. has failed to directly address the impact on Black Americans of slavery, and that discrimination leads to Black people starting off with a disadvantage.

“We cannot close the door on affirmative action unless our country's leaders address those issues,” he said. “My experience as a Black lawyer has put me in spaces where almost no one looked like me or had similar life experiences. This Supreme Court decision eliminates a key program that was working to help ensure that those rooms look different when Black kids like my son head to college.”

NPR’s Elissa Nadworny contributed to this report.