Vice President of the United States Kamala Harris speaks during the Global Black Economic Forum during the 2023 ESSENCE Festival of Culture on June 29, 2023 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Itoro N. Umontuen/The Atlanta Voice)

NEW ORLEANS — Chief Justice John Roberts characterized affirmative action as ‘highly objectionable’ during his time as a lawyer with President Ronald Reagan’s administration in a response to the Fifty States Project in a January 1983 memo. In this case, Roberts believed the United States Government should not engage in freedom fighting regarding gender discrimination. 

Roberts’s views were part of the majority decision forty years later when the High Court ruled 6-3 in favor of slashing the race-based admissions standards at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

“The Harvard and UNC admissions programs cannot be reconciled with the guarantees of the equal protection clause,” Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority in the case of Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College. “Both programs lack sufficiently focused and measurable objectives warranting the use of race, unavoidably employ race in a negative manner, involve racial stereotyping and lack meaningful endpoints.”

Roberts went on to say, “In other words, the student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual — not on the basis of race. Many universities have for too long done just the opposite.”

The Supreme Court held a special sitting on September 30, 2022 for the formal investiture ceremony of Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. (Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)

Vice President Harris denounces SCOTUS’s decision

During the Global Black Economic Forum at the ESSENCE Festival of Culture in New Orleans, Vice President Kamala Harris condemned the decision by the Supreme Court. As an audience looked on, Vice President Harris instructed attendees to read Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s decision, dissenting against the majority. In a dialogue along with Thasunda Brown Duckett—President and CEO of the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America (TIAA)—Harris said Justice Brown Jackson’s dissent was “brilliant.” Harris went on to say:

“The disappointment is because this is now a moment where the court has not fully understood the importance of ‘equal opportunity’ for the people of our country. And it is in so very many ways a denial of opportunity. And it is a complete misnomer to suggest this is about colorblind, when in fact, it is about being blind to history.

Being blind to data. Being blind to empirical evidence about disparities. Being blind to the strength that diversity brings to classrooms, to boardrooms. I think that there is no question, there’s so much work to do. And the President spoke so eloquently earlier today about this. Our administration will use all the tools in our power to continue to applaud policies that understand the importance and the significance and the strength of diversity in all of those places.”

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A renaissance for HBCUs? 

The original question that was argued by the Supreme Court was: May institutions of higher education use race as a factor in admissions? If so, does Harvard College’s race-conscious admissions process violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson said in the dissent, “deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life.”

“And having so detached itself from this country’s actual past and present experiences, the court has now been lured into interfering with the crucial work that UNC and other institutions of higher learning are doing to solve America’s real-world problems,” Justice Brown Jackson continued.

“No one benefits from ignorance. Although formal race linked legal barriers are gone, race still matters to the lived experiences of all Americans in innumerable ways, and today’s ruling makes things worse, not better.”

Thasunda Brown Duckett, President and CEO of TIAA, speaks to the Vice President of the United States, Kamala Harris, during the Global Black Economic Forum during the 2023 ESSENCE Festival of Culture on June 29, 2023 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Itoro N. Umontuen/The Atlanta Voice)

While the decision will likely lead to a more Whiter student population at the Public White Institutions, would the Historically Black Colleges and Universities experience a potential renaissance with a surge of enrollment? But first, the Supreme Court’s decision will impact not just Black students, but Asian-American and Pacific Islander students, Latino students seeking to attend the state-funded Public White Institutions of higher learning. The decision by the conservative majority now creates an unfettered runway for an university’s admissions board to consider the sons or daughters of alumni (referred to as legacies), the wealthy, and the well-connected over a minority student that meets and/or surpasses the academic criterion needed to gain acceptance. 

“Affirmative Action in higher education has been a tool to remedy past and current racial discrimination in higher education is not a new thing,” said Melanie L. Campbell, President and CEO of The National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. “And so to see that go down, knowing that those decisions can impact people’s lives for decades.”

The median income for Black households was $48,297, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By comparison, the median income for white households was $74,262 — a difference of $25,965, or 35%. 

“I look at our young leaders and I will say as a proud HBCU graduate, they’re not having it,” Harris said. But that the strength of our nation has been a commitment to the expansion of rights and freedoms. And I’m going to paraphrase Coretta Scott King. She famously said, the fight for equality, the fight for freedom, fight for justice, the fight for civil rights must be fought and won with each generation.”

Dr. George T. French Jr., president of Clark Atlanta University

To that end, a president at a prominent HBCU believes the Supreme Court’s decision “unintentionally but intentionally” tried to turn back parts of time as far as African-Americans and other minorities receiving a quality education. 

Dr. George T. French, Jr. has served as the President of Clark Atlanta University since September 2019. Previously, he was the president of Miles College from 2006 through 2019. French Jr. believes the Supreme Court inadvertently heightened the importance of Black colleges and Universities.

“Because you have those who aspired to PWIs, we assure you that we have everything needed for your success within the HBCU community,” French Jr. said. “So while we’re disappointed we also understand that it’s an opportunity for Historically Black Colleges to continue to exhibit black excellence, even inclusive of those denied opportunities.”

There are 107 HBCUs in the United States and President French advocated for the Atlanta University Center’s position to best receive and nurture the influx of Black and ethnic minority students that would inextricably enroll to an HBCU rather than to a top state-supported or private majority White university. 

“So I want to be clear on my statement here: The lynchpin is, I say that HBCUs can offer everything, but I know in the realest truth practically that’s not true. If I want to study neuro-physics now, I have my school in mind, my kids can’t come to Clark, Spelman, Morehouse, or Howard. They can’t come to get that.”

French Jr. added the HBCUs at-large need additional funding to expand existing programs to make sure that these students will have the same opportunities. He called for increased federal funding in order to bridge the gap between programs offered at PWIs and offered at HBCUs due to a lack of capacity.  More applications to HBCUs will undoubtedly result in greater federal financing and funding for the state-supported and land-grant HBCUs.  

“We are so powerful as a collective, but we want and must guide the conversation and be part of the voice on a national level, not Atlanta,” French Jr. continued.

Itoro Umontuen currently serves as Managing Editor of The Atlanta Voice. Upon his arrival to the historic publication, he served as their Director of Photography. As a mixed-media journalist, Umontuen...