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A judge’s passionate defense of affirmative action could signal its end

A federal judge passionately supported race-conscious school admissions in a ruling about the University of North Carolina. The Supreme Court might gut them anyway.

A federal judge ruled Monday that the University of North Carolina can continue using race as a factor in its admissions process, rejecting a conservative group’s argument that the policy discriminated against white and Asian American people. 

The case stems from a 2014 lawsuit in which a conservative group named Students for Fair Admissions claimed UNC’s admissions process “equates to a penalty imposed upon white and Asian-American applicants.” 

Edward Blum, the white man who heads SFFA, has said his organization will file an appeal in the UNC case. He previously waged an unsuccessful Supreme Court fight against race-conscious admissions at the University of Texas, and a similar lawsuit his group filed against Harvard University could be heard by the court this term. 

Image: The University of North Carolina Campus at Chapel Hill in 2013.
The University of North Carolina campus at Chapel Hill in 2013.Lance King / Getty Images; MSNBC

In her Monday ruling, U.S. District Judge Loretta Biggs of the Middle District of North Carolina didn’t mince words. She said considering race in admissions at UNC is necessary “because race is so interwoven in every aspect of the lived experience of minority students.” Race shouldn’t be the sole factor considered in the process, Biggs said, but “to ignore it, reduce its importance and measure it only by statistical models as SFFA has done, misses important context.”

Biggs said persistent racial issues on UNC’s campus have impeded the university’s efforts to become more diverse, and those problems have led to the university considering race in admissions.

“Nearly seventy years after the first black students were admitted to UNC, the minority students at the University still report being confronted with racial epithets, as well as feeling isolated, ostracized, stereotyped and viewed as tokens in a number of University spaces,” she wrote in her ruling.

Conservative activists have long tried to ban schools seeking to diversify their student bodies from factoring race in their admissions process. With a conservative-leaning Supreme Court now in power, race-conscious admissions could finally be headed for dissolution. In 2003, the Supreme Court affirmed that universities have the right to consider race in its admissions process, but that precedent is being challenged by the SFFA lawsuit against Harvard.

In her UNC ruling, Biggs upheld a long-standing tradition of giving schools leeway to help remedy diversity issues through their admissions processes. But it’s possible she just bought more time before the Supreme Court takes a hacksaw to race-conscious school admissions.

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