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Though the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal to discriminate against people on the basis of their race, gender, and more, affirmative action in college admissions has long operated in a gray area.
In the latest case concerning the legality of race-based considerations in college admissions, the U.S. Department of Justice has accused Yale University of illegal discrimination with their admissions practices. What does this mean for Yale, and for college students in general?
Affirmative action is the practice of considering factors like race and gender to ensure that women and racial minorities — who have historically had lesser chances of admission — are given special consideration. This allows for greater diversity in student bodies.
Over the years, Supreme Court interpretations of the legality of affirmative action have varied and often contradicted previous Court opinions. Depending on the justices sitting on the Court, and the specifics of the case, affirmative action policies are usually either found to be permissible or to unconstitutionally prioritize one group of people over another.
In 2003, the Supreme Court decided in Gratz v. Bollinger that race could be a permissible consideration in the college admissions process, so long as it served a direct purpose of admitting more underrepresented minorities and did not take the form of a quota system.
The Court built upon this precedent in 2013 with its opinion in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. In that case, the white student suing the university actually won her case, and the Court ruled that the system which awarded minorities 20 "points" toward admission was unconstitutional.
Overall, the Court has taken a more lenient attitude toward affirmative action systems when race or gender-based factors are merely a consideration in the admissions process, rather than a numbers-based diversity quota system. Generally, the Court has permitted a "limited" use of race-based consideration, though it believes that affirmative action should undergo strict judicial scrutiny.
While specifics on the allegations against Yale have yet to be released, the university says that its affirmative action policies comply with prior Supreme Court precedent. The Department of Justice contends that Yale's use of race is "anything but limited" and illegally disadvantages white and Asian-American students in admissions.
The DOJ says it plans to file a lawsuit if Yale does not reform its practices — but who would the Court rule in favor of if this comes to pass? It's difficult to say for sure without knowing exactly what Yale's affirmative action process looks like.
One good sign for Yale is that Harvard University recently won a similar lawsuit supported by the Department of Justice. Harvard was accused of discriminating against Asian-American students through its use of affirmative action, and though its practices of "limited" race-based admissions were determined to be imperfect, they were not ruled illegal or unconstitutional.
Using terms like "limited" opens up room for debate and disagreement in the judicial review process. Yale says that its practices of using race in admissions comply with standing Supreme Court precedent and rulings, but the Department of Justice disagrees. It's now up to the courts to determine whose interpretation of "limited" is correct.