WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday struck down affirmative action programs at the University of North Carolina and Harvard in a huge victory for conservative activists that ends the systematic consideration of race in the admissions process.

The court ruled that both programs violate the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause and are therefore illegal. The vote was 6-3 in the UNC case and 6-2 in the Harvard case, in which liberal Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson was recused.

The court effectively struck down the Judgment of 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger, in which the court said race could be considered a factor in the admissions process because universities had a compelling interest in maintaining diverse campuses. In doing so, the court struck down decades of precedent, including a ruling dating back to 1978 that upheld limited consideration of race in college admissions as a way to combat historical discrimination against blacks and other minorities.

Students at the University of North Carolina walk across campus in Chapel Hill on March 28, 2023.Jonathan Drake/Reuters/Redux

In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts did not explicitly say that previous precedents were overturned, but in a concurring opinion, Conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, only the second black judge to serve on the court said the Grutter case was «vacated for all intents and purposes.»

Roberts wrote that both shows «lack sufficiently focused and measurable objectives to justify the use of race, inevitably employ race in negative ways, involve racial stereotyping, and lack meaningful end points.»

Jackson, the first black woman to serve on the court, wrote in a dissenting opinion that the ruling was «truly a tragedy for all of us.»

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, another liberal and the first Hispanic female judge, wrote that the court «stands in the way and rolls back decades of precedent and momentous advances.»

Sotomayor, in a sign of her displeasure, read a lengthy summary of her dissenting opinion in the courtroom.

Thomas, a longtime critic of affirmative action, penned his own 58-page opinion in which he called the programs in question «witless, race-based preferences designed to ensure a particular racial mix in entering classes.» «.

Both policies «go against our color-blind Constitution and our nation’s ideal of equality.»

The ruling is another example of the court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, fulfilling the long-standing goals of conservative legal activists. It follows in the wake of the 2022 seismic ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that guaranteed the right to abortion.

The court’s decision is a big blow to the most selective colleges that say some consideration of race is vital to ensuring they have diverse student bodies.

The small number of schools that have extremely competitive admissions programs bear the brunt. They have predicted that the rulings against the universities will lead to a significant drop in the enrollment of minority students and will require admissions officers to experiment with new race-neutral plans aimed at countering the impact. The vast majority of universities accept almost all applicants and will not be affected as much.

Among the dozens of institutions with race-sensitive admissions policies are Yale University, Brown University, Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Chicago, and Dartmouth College.

Roberts left open the possibility for universities to consider the discussion of race in an individual student’s application, citing the example of someone who personally faced racial discrimination.

The student «should be treated based on their experiences as an individual, not based on race,» he added.

He also noted that the ruling does not address the consideration of race in military academies. The Biden administration had warned that a ruling curbing affirmative action would negatively affect the US military, which relies on a «diverse and well-qualified officer corps» educated at military academies like West Point, as well as civilian universities.

The ruling is likely to have repercussions well beyond higher education, including in K-12 schools, putting further pressure on universities to come up with viable race-neutral programs that foster racial diversity. The decision could also lead to future challenges to racial diversity programs used by employers, as similar arguments could be made under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination.

In the 2003 ruling, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that affirmative action programs should no longer be necessary by 2028.

Conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh, in a concurring opinion, said Thursday’s ruling would first apply to those starting college in 2028 and therefore the decision does not conflict with the 2003 ruling.

Affirmative action, introduced to redress historic discrimination, has been a contentious issue for years, strongly supported by American educational institutions and corporations as vital to fostering diversity and condemned by conservatives as antithetical to the notion that equality racial means that all races are treated the same. same.

Both challenges were brought by a group called Students for Fair Admissions, led by conservative activist Ed Blum.

“The polarizing, stigmatizing and unfair case law that allowed colleges and universities to use a student’s race and ethnicity as a factor in admitting or rejecting them has been struck down,” it said in a statement.

The legal debate that led to the latest ruling was left unresolved by a fractured 1978 Supreme Court ruling in which justices outlawed racial quotas but left the door open for some consideration of race. That then led to the 2003 Grutter ruling, which again grudgingly allowed some affirmative action programs.

In 2016, the last time the Supreme Court ruled on affirmative action, the justices narrowly upheld the University of Texas at Austin’s admissions policy in a 4-3 vote, and conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has since retired, cast the deciding vote. .

The court shifted to the right after then-President Donald Trump appointed three conservative justices. President Joe Biden’s appointment of Jackson did not change the ideological balance of the court, as he replaced liberal Justice Stephen Breyer. Because Jackson served on Harvard’s board of supervisors during the litigation, he stepped aside from that case and participated alone in the North Carolina dispute.

Blum’s group argued that any consideration of race in college admissions is illegal under both Title VI and the Constitution. They said UNC’s admissions policy discriminates against white and Asian applicants and that Harvard’s policy discriminates against Asians. In both cases, the lower courts ruled in favor of the universities.

In defending his policies, universities and their supporters, including the Biden administration, civil rights groups, businesses and former military leaders, argued that excluding someone based on race is entirely different from seeking diversity on campus. Universities say race is only one factor considered as part of the broad individualized analysis of each applicant.

UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said the university «remains strongly committed to bringing together talented students with different perspectives and life experiences and continues to make affordable, high-quality education accessible to the people of North Carolina and beyond».

Affirmative action advocates said race-neutral policies aimed at achieving diversity will often fail, causing enrollment declines for blacks and Hispanics. The challengers point to examples in the nine states that already ban the practice as evidence that considering race is not essential.