Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said Monday that pro-affirmative action arguments being made before the court reminded him of pro-segregation arguments.
What is the background?
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments for Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. President & Fellows of Harvard College and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina on Monday.
The significance of the cases cannot be overstated. First, the court will decide whether race can play a role in college admissions, which is currently legal and is known as "affirmative action."
Second, the court will determine "whether Harvard College is violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act by penalizing Asian American applicants, engaging in racial balancing, overemphasizing race and rejecting workable race-neutral alternatives," according to SCOTUSBlog, and whether "a university can reject a race-neutral alternative because it would change the composition of the student body, without proving that the alternative would cause a dramatic sacrifice in academic quality or the educational benefits of overall student-body diversity."
What did Thomas say?
During oral arguments, Thomas asked North Carolina Solicitor General Ryan Park for a definition of "diversity" and to explain the "educational benefits" of diversity.
"Mr. Park, I've heard the word 'diversity' quite a few times, and I don't have a clue what it means," Thomas noted. "It seems to mean everything for everyone.
"I'd like you to give us a specific definition of diversity," he asked.
Park, however, could not provide a specific definition of "diversity."
"First, we define diversity the way this court has in this court's precedents, which means a broadly diverse set of criteria that extends to all different backgrounds and perspectives and not solely limited to race," he responded.
Regarding the educational benefits of diversity, Park claimed there is no dispute whether diversity is beneficial in education. When pushed further, he pointed to studies about stock trading that claim "racially diverse groups of people making trading decisions perform at a higher level."
"The mechanism there is that it reduces groupthink and people have longer and more sustained disagreement, and that leads to a more efficient outcome," Park claimed.
Thomas fired back, "Well, I guess I don’t put much stock in that, because I’ve heard similar arguments in favor of segregation too."
Thomas' objection to affirmative action is well known.
In a previous case — Grutter v. Bollinger, the case that could be overturned — Thomas explained how the racial considerations innate in affirmative action are dehumanizing.
"The Constitution abhors classifications based on race not only because those classifications can harm favored races or are based on illegitimate motives, but also because every time the government places citizens on racial registers and makes race relevant to the provision of burdens or benefits, it demeans us all," he wrote in an opinion.
In another affirmative action case, Fisher v. University of Texas, Thomas explicated his comparison to arguments for segregation.
"It is irrelevant under the Fourteenth Amendment whether segregated or mixed schools produce better leaders," he wrote.
"Indeed, no court today would accept the suggestion that segregation is permissible because historically black colleges produced Booker T. Washington, Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other prominent leaders," he explained. "Likewise, the University’s racial discrimination cannot be justified on the ground that it will produce better leaders."