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Experts, activists react as U.S. Supreme Court sends University of Texas affirmative action case back to 5th Circuit Court of Appeals

Jenée Desmond-Harris

In a 7-1 decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the U.S. Supreme Court sent the case back to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals for another look at the University of Texas’ consideration of race as one admissions factor to create a diverse student body.

The basis of the ruling: The majority said that the lower court failed to hold UT’s admissions plan to the strict legal standard set out in the landmark case Grutter v. Bollinger. But it upheld the principle that schools can consider race in achieving diversity.

So how are people who would like to see affirmative action survive supposed to feel? We pulled together reactions from legal experts, court watchers and civil rights activists who scrutinized the Abigail Fisher v. University of Texas decision and its potential impact on educational diversity and opportunity.

Victory for a Diverse America

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights called the decision “an important victory for our nation’s ongoing work to build a more inclusive, diverse America” and predicted that the UT policy “will ultimately be upheld by the Court of Appeals,” adding, “In reaffirming that a diverse learning environment benefits students, our workforce and the country as a whole, the ruling makes it clear that now is the time to expand our commitment to diversity in all of our institutions to ensure that we are well-positioned to compete in the diverse economy of the 21st Century.”

A Check-Engine Light

David Hinojosa of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund told the Atlantic, “This is basically like a check-engine light has come on, and without looking under the hood you said, ‘Throw away the car,’” he said. “The court said, ‘No, let’s look under the hood.’ It might be a faulty light or it might just need a tune-up, but you definitely don’t need to just discard the car altogether.”

A Surprisingly Narrow Ruling

The Constitutional Accountability Center’s Civil Rights Director David Gans said the court “backed away from the edge of the cliff” with Monday’s ruling. “The court surprised most court watchers by issuing an extremely narrow decision. The justices did not decide the constitutionality of the university’s use of race in admissions, the big question at the heart of this case,” he said.

A Critical Move Toward Equal Opportunity

Roslyn M. Brock, chairman of the NAACP national board of directors, called the ruling “a critical decision toward ensuring equal opportunity in education. It is in our nation’s best interest to grant a fair chance to people with various backgrounds and ethnicities,” she said. “In today’s global economy, all Americans will benefit from a diverse and inclusive environment in higher education.”

Pleased and Optimistic

“We are pleased that the court chose to affirm that there is a place for race in university admissions,” NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous said when the decision was announced. “There is a need and a benefit for our nation to ensure all students get a close look and a fair shot. We remain optimistic that colleges and universities will continue to act to keep doors open to students of all backgrounds.”

Disagree, but Grateful

The Advancement Project’s Co-Director Penda Hair said in a statement: “We are grateful the Supreme Court’s decision continues to recognize that colleges and universities can use race to achieve their compelling interest in having a diverse student body.”

However, she added, “the court did not have to send the case back to the Court of Appeals, because as shown in Advancement Project’s amicus brief filed in the case, the university’s use of race was clearly necessary under even the most exacting standard.”

Applause for Diversity

Kim Keenan, the NAACP’s general counsel, said the NAACP “applauds the court’s preservation of the Grutter standard permitting universities to consider racial and ethnic diversity as one factor among many in a carefully crafted admissions policy.”

Keenan says she’s “confident that 5th Circuit will uphold the policy.”

Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root’s staff writer and White House correspondent.