Justice Clarence Thomas expressed skepticism that racial diversity has a salient impact on educational outcomes on Monday as the Supreme Court weighed arguments regarding affirmative action in university admissions.
Students for Fair Admissions, a legal advocacy group which opposes providing applicants an advantage because of their racial identity, has filed complaints against both Harvard University and the University of North Carolina for “employing racially and ethnically discriminatory policies and procedures” when accepting students. The lawsuit against Harvard argued that Asian-American students need significantly higher test scores to gain admission to elite schools.
North Carolina State Solicitor General Ryan Park mentioned the “educational benefits of diversity” a number of times during his arguments. In response, Thomas challenged the attorney to present “a specific definition” in the context of the University of North Carolina, according to an official transcript published by the Supreme Court.
“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, who is known for speaking very rarely during oral arguments, remarked. “I’d also like you to give us a clear idea of exactly what the educational benefits of diversity at the University of North Carolina would be.”
After Park cited studies claiming that racial diversity leads to “a deeper and richer learning environment,” as well as the promotion of creative thinking and the reduction of racial bias, Thomas noted that he still had not provided the precise educational benefits of diversity. When Park referred to another study indicating that traders made better investment decisions within racially diverse teams, Thomas said that he does not “put much stock in that” because he has heard “similar arguments in favor of segregation too.”
Thomas, one of two African-Americans on the Supreme Court, has repeatedly written opinions against affirmative action in the past. As he hinted during the Monday hearings, Thomas noted in a 2012 opinion that segregationists once argued their policies would provide more leadership opportunities for blacks. “It is irrelevant under the Fourteenth Amendment whether segregated or mixed schools produce better leaders,” he said, noting that no court today would uphold segregation merely because historically black colleges produced individuals such as Booker T. Washington and Thurgood Marshall.
Other members of the Supreme Court on Monday likewise appeared to doubt the merits of the defendants’ arguments. Justice Amy Coney Barrett noted that a previous decision concluded all governmental use of race must have “a logical endpoint” and “sunset provisions,” then expressed doubt to Park that the University of North Carolina’s policies had such provisions in place. Justice Brett Kavanaugh raised similar concerns, noting that “racial classifications are potentially dangerous.”
Several analyses have highlighted the disadvantages faced by Asian-Americans in college admissions processes seeking to reserve places for black and Hispanic students. One study from 2009 concluded that Asians required an SAT score approximately 140 points higher than white applicants, 270 points higher than Hispanic applicants, and 450 points higher than black applicants, according to a report from the Asian American Coalition for Education.
Commentators generally agreed that the court is poised to overturn precedents related to affirmative action. Justices on the Supreme Court opposed to the practice may have an advantage in the case against Harvard, as Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, who was appointed by President Joe Biden, recused herself since she recently concluded a six-year term on the Harvard Board of Overseers.