On affirmative action, U.S. bishops echo call of St. Katharine Drexel

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(OSV News) — In a statement released July 7, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said that it was their “hope that our Catholic institutions of higher learning will continue to find ways to make education possible and affordable for everyone, regardless of their background.”

The statement was made in response to the June 29 Supreme Court ruling that institutions of higher education can no longer take race into consideration for admission, a landmark decision overturning previous precedent supported by many Catholic universities and colleges.

“Education is a gift, an opportunity, and an important aspect of our democracy that is not always within the reach of all, especially racial and ethnic groups who find themselves on the margins,” the statement, issued by Bishop Joseph N. Perry, auxiliary bishop of Chicago and newly appointed chair of the Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, said. Quoting St. Katharine Drexel, patroness and pioneer in Catholic education, the USCCB statement concluded: “If we wish to serve God and love our neighbor as well, we must manifest our joy in the service we render to Him and them. Let us open wide our hearts. It is joy which invites us. Press forward and fear nothing.”

College admissions and marginalized groups

Within higher education, affirmative action refers to admissions practices that purport to increase the number of students admitted from historically marginalized groups, such as Black and Hispanic students. Colleges and universities that take race into consideration have argued that doing so is only one factor in a broader admissions process, which also includes a student’s grades, test scores and extracurricular activities.

Supporters of affirmative action policies argue they help to address the lasting impact of racism in American society. Opponents, however, say race-based admission policies harm students who should be judged on their merits as students alone, with some arguing that Asian American students were disproportionality rejected in favor of white, Black and Hispanic applicants.

The majority opinion

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the 6-3 majority opinion in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, arguing admissions programs at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause in a ruling dealing with affirmative action policies at those institutions.

“The Harvard and UNC admissions programs cannot be reconciled with the guarantees of the Equal Protection Clause,” Roberts wrote. “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 end points. We have never permitted admissions programs to work in that way, and we will not do so today.”

‘Turning back the clock’

In a dissent, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson argued her colleagues were “turning back the clock” by effectively ending affirmative action.

“With let-them-eat-cake obliviousness, today, the majority pulls the ripcord and announces ‘colorblindness for all’ by legal fiat,” wrote Jackson, who is African American. She added, “But deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life.”

In a statement, the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, which describes itself as the collective voice of U.S. Catholic higher education, said the high court’s ruling is “more than disappointing as it ignores the more-than-apparent effects of continued racism in our society.”

“In doing so, it undermines the work that higher education has voluntarily taken on for many decades to be a solution in a society that provides too few solutions for this social evil,” the statement said.

The association said its members would follow Catholic social teaching and, within the bounds of the decision, “continue to create paths by which those in society who do not have opportunity find it at our institutions.”

Kate Scanlon

Kate Scanlon is a national reporter for OSV News covering Washington.