"We Won't Go Back"

Why Students are Urging the Supreme Court to Support Race-Conscious Admissions

By Keecee DeVenny
Digital Strategist

On June 29, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in SFFA v. Harvard and SFFA v. University of North Carolina (UNC) and found that Harvard and UNC’s affirmative action programs violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  However, the Court’s ruling still allows colleges to consider how race has affected a student’s life and their ability to contribute to the educational institution. 

On a sunny Sunday, hundreds of students and advocates came together in Washington, D.C. to advance a simple but poignant message: defend diversity, affirm opportunity. This Affirm Diversity gathering occurred on the eve of the Oct. 31 Supreme Court hearings for two pivotal cases concerning race-conscious admissionsStudents for Fair Admissions (SFFA) v. Harvard College and SFFA v. University of North Carolina (UNC), that could threaten decades of established case law.

Students and alumni who are part of organizations represented by LDF in the Harvard case are urging the court to reaffirm over 40 years of precedent establishing that it’s legally permissible to consider race, among a variety of factors, in the higher education admissions process. Systemic inequities in the PK-12 school system have placed students of color at a disadvantage throughout their educational careers, giving them significantly less opportunity to achieve the traditional admissions metrics valued by universities, despite being readily qualified to compete for admission to these schools. Race-conscious university admissions policies have served to remedy these inequities, foster equal opportunities for students of color, and promote diverse and educationally-valuable student bodies that reflect the rich diversity of American society. Dismantling these policies could have devastating implications for students of color as well as entire student bodies — and their collective futures.

The Oct. 30 gathering allowed students to be in community ahead of the hearings — and also served as a platform for many of them to make it clear that educational diversity, while critical, is still only one of the many steps necessary to create the multi-ethnic, multi-racial democracy they envision. In between sign-making, filming TikTok dances, and listening to an impressive lineup of speakers including civil rights leaders, Harvard University alumni, and jazz vocalist Josephine Beavers, students — many of whom are from organizations we represent — spoke to LDF. They reflected on what drove them to join the Affirm Diversity event and shared why ensuring diversity in education and beyond is so important to them, especially against the backdrop of the pending Supreme Court decisions.

Ishika Vyas

18, Harvard College

Vyas, a first-year student, says she was inspired to show her support because, “you can’t remove things like ethnic and racial identity from someone — that shapes their life. A large part of that background is what has made them so passionate toward the things that they are pursuing within college and the rest of their lives, and without that diversity you’re not bringing diverse change into the world.”

Jonathan Haileselassie
19, Harvard College

Haileselassie was inspired to join the event by his grandfather, who never had the opportunity to apply to Harvard College. He says, “diversity is important because it upholds the community that we all value. America is supposed to be a melting pot of different cultures and different thoughts and different thinking. So, if we’re not able to include everyone in that through things like affirmative action, then are we truly upholding what America is about?”

Lahiruni Dias

19, University of Maryland

Sophomore Amarawardena was drawn to the event because she wants to “confront the model minority myth head-on.” She adds, “Asian Americans are treated as a monolith. Most often you think about Chinese Americans or Japanese Americans, but rarely do you think about refugees who come from Nepal or Bangladesh. There’s so much diversity in Asia that we have to consider those underserved populations, which is why affirmative action is extremely important.”

Melanie NG

19, Harvard College

Ng wanted to show her support for diversity on college campuses because she believes, “a more diverse community encapsulates more ideas and leads to more progression.” She says the Harvard case is an attempt to reduce diversity by “using minorities to bring a case against other minorities,” and that “instead of bringing each other to a place where we’re not progressing, we should … accept that different communities have been disadvantaged in the past, especially in education, and acknowledge that as we move forward.”

Joseph Hernandez
19, Harvard College

Hernandez came out to affirm diversity because “affirmative action and race-conscious admissions is a really important part of not only ensuring diversity but also proper representation in higher education.” He emphasizes that college impacts so much of our lives and that without “proper representation, we reinforce really bad systemic racism.”

Tara Davoodi
19, University of Maryland

Davoodi, a first-year student, wanted to support affirming diversity because she says she’s felt the disparities in her education when in predominantly white spaces versus diverse spaces. She says, “diversity is an integral part of a solid, robust education system … and helps students gain a better perspective on the world.”

SoEun Park
18, Harvard College

First-year student Park joined the event because she wants to “debunk the model minority myth.” She notes that diversity is important because, “it allows us to see new perspectives and it brings new light to things. Having one perspective will not improve anything.”

Joyce Kim
18, Harvard College

Kim says she feels she’s “personally benefited from affirmative action” and knows how important it is. She was inspired to join the gathering to affirm diversity because, “education is not just a degree, it’s having the humility and the intelligence and the empathy to talk with all sorts of people. And I think diversity fosters that sort of empathy and understanding … of different backgrounds and helps us become more aware of the world that we live in and also the people that we’re living alongside.”

For the students, advocates, civil rights leaders, artists, and activists who attended the gathering, defending diversity is about more than just upholding the legality of holistic college admissions. It’s about ensuring that students’ entire lived experiences, shaped by their race, are recognized and celebrated in their potential to contribute to the vibrancy of college campuses.

As state-level attacks to the accurate teaching of our nation’s history and attempts to deny student’s lived experiences threaten classrooms across the country, it is more important than ever that higher education recognizes the intrinsic value of a richly diverse student body. Regardless of the decision that is ultimately handed down by the Supreme Court in spring 2023, it’s clear that these students will not be taking any steps back. And they will not lose hope in their efforts to ensure that diversity isn’t just a valued part of the college experience, but also of our society as a whole.

Header: Students and advocates at a rally outside of the Supreme Court on Oct. 31, 2022 (photo via Getty). Student Images: Photographs by Keecee DeVenny, LDF.

Published: November 3, 2022


SFFA v. Harvard and SFFA v. UNC   FAQ

The cases challenging affirmative action before the Supreme Court, and why they matter.

For more than 40 years, the Supreme Court has upheld race-conscious admissions. Learn more about the two landmark cases focused on affirmative action currently before the Supreme Court, and why protecting race-conscious admissions is critical. We answer common questions about affirmative action and its impact.