The state of California saw a significant decline in Black and Latino student enrollment in higher education after the state banned affirmative action in public universities in 1996, a trend that experts say they expect to see nationwide with today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision. 

Today’s court decision was blasted by Congressional Hispanic Caucus chair Rep. Nanette Barragán, a Democrat who represents a district in South Los Angeles that is 70% Latino.

“Today’s decision will only benefit the wealthy and well-connected at the expense of marginalized communities and exacerbate barriers students of color face on their path to attaining an education. In California, we saw Latino student admissions drop by half at some of the top-state universities when race-conscious admissions were barred – leading to severely disproportionate representation of the largest minority group in the state at our top schools. Now vulnerable students across the country will be subjected to similar additional hurdles. Affirmative action assures that all of our students are exposed to multi-ethnic, multicultural, diverse learning environments that reflect the realities of the global workforce and society that our universities are preparing them to enter,”  Barragán said.

Janet Murguía, CEO and president of UnidosUS, the nation’s largest civil rights and advocacy group, alluded to California in expressing “deep disappointment” in the high court decision.

“We should be clear: students of color belong on college campuses. Our nation’s future depends on it. In that vein, we must avoid what happened in California a generation ago. When Proposition 209 barred race-conscious admissions in California in 1996, Latino student admissions at UCLA and Berkeley dropped by half. Today, more than half of California’s public high school graduates identified as Hispanic, but just 25% of freshmen at all University of California schools and only 15% of freshmen at UCLA and Berkeley are Latino,” said Murguía, adding, “We cannot allow participation of communities of color to experience similar declines in colleges and universities across the country. Everyone involved in education must act with urgency to ensure that colleges remain able to achieve diversity on campus. Access to post-secondary education is a gateway to greater economic achievement and contribution, creating stability and progress for families and whole communities. After today’s decision, achieving greater equity in education by any legal means available must now be central to how we all can realize the American dream.”

Interestingly though, 57% of California voters cast their ballots in 2020 against reinstating affirmative action in the state’s public colleges and universities.

The high court’s decision in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina wipes away decades of SCOTUS precedence upheld even by justices named by Republican presidents. 

The court’s two women of color, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson, issued furious and scorching rebuttals. “The Court subverts the constitutional guarantee of equal protection by further entrenching racial inequality in education, the very foundation of our democratic government and pluralistic society,” and that the majority’s vision of race neutrality “will entrench racial segregation in higher education because racial inequality will persist so long as it is ignored,” Sotomayor wrote in an unprecedented 69-page dissent.

Brown Jackson wrote, “With let-them-eat-cake obliviousness, today, the majority pulls the ripcord and announces ‘colorblindness for all’ by legal fiat. But deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life. … It would be deeply unfortunate if the Equal Protection Clause actually demanded this perverse, ahistorical, and counterproductive outcome,” saying that the court has “detached itself from this country’s actual past and present experiences.” 

Barragán added, “Today’s ruling by the Supreme Court dismantles more than 40 years of precedent to increase representation for marginalized groups in university and college campuses, erasing decades of progress. Race-conscious admission policies that allow universities to consider race as one of several factors in the admissions process are a critical and much-needed component to address systemic inequalities and foster diversity. It benefits the entire student body by enriching college experiences and better preparing students to enter their professions.” 

California’s Proposition 209 in 1996 banned the use of race in admissions in colleges and universities, and the state is one of nine that banned the practice, with all seeing a decline in applications. 

According to a recent report in The Quarterly Journal of Economics, ending affirmative action in admissions to the flagship University of California system “caused underrepresented minority (URM) freshman applicants to cascade to lower-quality colleges” and that a greater number ending up leaving higher education without completing their degree. According to the most recent data, while 53% of high school graduates in California are Latino, just 22% were enrolled in the UC system in 2020. 

The report added that “ending affirmative action also deterred thousands of qualified URM students from applying to any UC campus,” which in turn represented a decline in average wages among Latinos into their 20s and 30s. 

Civil rights organizations say they fear today’s court decision could open up a Pandora’s box of litigation against similar programs, including DEI (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion) initiatives in corporate America, something that UnidosUS’ Murguía says should make groups even more determined to fight against those rollbacks. 

“Alongside our fellow civil rights organizations, we underscore that this decision is limited to just one aspect of college admissions. It cannot and should not disturb our commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion. Latinos are one in five Americans, and communities of color together make up nearly 40% of the U.S. population.  We should never forget that diversity is our country’s superpower.”

That was also reflected in Sotomayor’s defiant dissent. “Society’s progress toward equality cannot be permanently halted. The pursuit of racial diversity will go on. Although the Court has stripped out almost all uses of race in college admissions, universities can and should continue to use all available tools to meet society’s needs for diversity in education.”

Raised in Puerto Rico, Patricia Guadalupe is a bilingual multimedia journalist based in Washington, D.C., covering the capital for both English and Spanish-language media outlets. She is also an adjunct...