The court’s conservative majority demonstrated skepticism about the practice. Medical schools say it’s a vital tool in ensuring diversity in enrollment and training better doctors.
Health groups have said they are worried that medical schools won’t be able to consider race as a factor in admissions, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority has likely only added to those concerns.
The conservative justices displayed skepticism of affirmative action as they heard two cases challenging the use of race in admissions at the University of North Carolina and Harvard College.
The plaintiffs in both cases are hoping to overturn a 2003 Supreme Court ruling, which said the University of Michigan could consider race as a factor in improving the school's diversity.
Medical schools, which are aiming to boost diversity in their enrollment, have argued against upending the court’s previous rulings in favor of utilizing race as one factor in admission decisions. Healthcare organizations say it’s vital for medical schools to recruit more students from minority groups in order to add diversity to the nation’s physician workforce.
The court is expected to issue its opinion in June. While court analysts often warn against reading too much into the arguments, the conservative justices' remarks suggest it’s possible that they will rule against using race as a factor in admissions.
Justice Clarence Thomas questioned the merits of diversity in education.
“I didn't go to racially diverse schools, but there were educational benefits,” Thomas said. “And I'd like you to tell me expressly, when a parent sends a kid to college, that they don't necessarily send them there to have fun or feel good or anything like that; they send them there to learn physics or chemistry or whatever they're studying.”
Justice Samuel Alito likened the use of race in admissions to organizing a 100-yard dash and allowing one competitor to run five fewer yards. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, one of the high court’s three liberal members, opposed that line of thinking. She said that schools are looking at all factors “to try to put the students at the start as equals.”
Justice Amy Coney Barrett argued that all governmental use of race and race-conscious admission policies “must have a logical end point,” saying the indefinite extension of such policies is “dangerous.”
Raising questions in the North Carolina case, Justice Neil Gorsuch said, “I guess I'm struggling still to understand how you distinguish between what this Court has said is impermissible, a quota, with what you argue should be permissible going forward, which is diversity. How can you do diversity without taking account of numbers?”
The court’s more liberal justices also spoke out in seeming defense of such policies.
Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the court’s newest member and the first Black female justice, said she was concerned that moving away from considering race as one factor could lead to inequity with applicants being unable to express their full identity. She noted race is one of at least 40 different factors that could give candidates from underrepresented groups a boost.
“So it's really hard to figure out if anyone is being disadvantaged in a system like that, and that's where I was worried about standing, because I'm trying to understand how the system is operating to actually advantage minorities in a way that is harmful to anyone else in this system,” Jackson said.
Justice Elena Kagan said universities are “the pipelines” to leadership in society.
“I thought that part of what it meant to be an American and to believe in American pluralism is that actually our institutions, you know, are reflective of who we are as --as a people in all our variety,” she said.
Seth Waxman, the lead attorney representing Harvard, told the justices that diversity breaks down prejudices and improves critical thinking.
“Student body diversity makes our businesses more innovative and globally competitive, our scientists more creative, our medical professionals more effective, and our military more cohesive,” Waxman told the court.
The Association of American Medical Colleges and more than other health associations filed an amicus brief over the summer urging the Supreme Court to continue allowing the consideration of race in admissions.
“Diversity in medical education yields better health outcomes not just because minority professionals are often more willing to serve (and often very effective at serving) minority communities, but because all physicians become better practitioners overall as a result of a diverse working and learning environment,” the brief stated.
David J. Skorton, the AAMC president and CEO, said this summer more diversity in medical schools and colleges will improve healthcare nationally.
“Numerous studies have consistently demonstrated health inequities along racial and ethnic lines in nearly every index of human health, and evidence shows that increased racial diversity in the health professions can help close that gap,” Skorton said in a statement.
“The AAMC has long supported the limited consideration of race and ethnicity in admissions where necessary and in support of a medical school’s mission, with deference to each school’s individualized admissions process and expertise.”
President Biden’s administration filed a brief supporting the universities and their right to consider race in admissions. The Biden administration argued “the educational benefits of diversity are essential to our Nation’s security and other vital national interests.”