IAS Gyan

Daily News Analysis


1st July, 2023 Polity

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Context: In a landmark ruling, the US Supreme Court has ruled that the race-conscious admission policies of the University of North Carolina (UNC) and Harvard University violated the constitutional rights of white and Asian-American applicants who were denied admission based on their race. The decision is a major blow to the affirmative action policies that have been used by many colleges and universities to increase the diversity and representation of underrepresented minority groups on their campuses.


  • The case, which was consolidated from two separate lawsuits, challenged the admission practices of UNC and Harvard, two of the most selective and prestigious institutions in the US.

Arguments of the Petitioners

  • The Petitioners, who were white and Asian-American students who were rejected by the schools, claimed that the schools discriminated against them on the basis of their race, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
  • They argued that the schools used race as a decisive factor in their admission decisions, rather than as one of many factors in a holistic review of applicants. They also alleged that the schools had racial quotas or targets for admitting certain percentages of minority students and that they did not consider race-neutral alternatives to achieve diversity.

Arguments of the Schools

  • The schools defended their admission policies, arguing that they were consistent with the previous Supreme Court rulings that allowed the use of race as a plus factor in a narrowly tailored way to achieve a compelling interest in educational diversity.
  • They also denied having any racial quotas or targets and maintained that they considered each applicant as an individual, taking into account their academic achievements, personal qualities, extracurricular activities, and other factors.

The ruling of the court

  • The US Supreme Court struck down the admission policies of UNC and Harvard. The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, held that the schools failed to meet the strict scrutiny standard that applies to any governmental use of race.
  • The court ruled that the schools did not demonstrate a compelling interest in diversity that justified their use of race and that their admission policies were not narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.
  • The court rejected the schools' argument that diversity enhances the educational experience and benefits society at large, stating that such claims were vague and unsupported by evidence.
  • The court also found that the schools did not adequately consider race-neutral alternatives to achieve diversity, such as increasing financial aid, expanding outreach programs, or eliminating legacy preferences.
  • The court concluded that the school's use of race was excessive and arbitrary and that it unfairly disadvantaged white and Asian-American applicants who were otherwise qualified for admission.

The implications of the decision

  • The decision has significant implications for higher education and civil rights in America. It effectively ends affirmative action in college admissions, as it makes it nearly impossible for any school to justify its use of race as a factor in admission decisions.
  • It also narrows the scope of diversity that can be pursued by colleges and universities, as it limits their ability to consider other aspects of identity besides race, such as gender, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation.
  • The decision will likely have a negative impact on the enrollment and representation of underrepresented minority groups in selective colleges and universities, especially African-American and Hispanic students. It will also affect the opportunities and outcomes for these students in terms of access to quality education, social mobility, career prospects, and civic engagement.
  • The decision will also likely spark more legal challenges and political debates over affirmative action and racial justice in America.

Affirmative action


  • Affirmative action is a policy or a program that aims to increase the representation of historically disadvantaged groups in education, employment, business, and other sectors of society.
  • It is based on the premise that past discrimination and oppression have created significant barriers and inequalities for certain groups, such as racial minorities, women, people with disabilities, and others.
  • Affirmative action seeks to address these injustices by providing preferential treatment or positive discrimination to these groups, to create a more diverse and inclusive society.


  • The concept of affirmative action emerged in the United States in the 1960s, as a response to the civil rights movement and the demands for racial justice and equality. The term was first used by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 when he issued an executive order that required federal contractors to take "affirmative action" to ensure that applicants are employed and treated fairly without regard to their race, colour, religion, sex, or national origin.
  • Since then, affirmative action has been adopted in various forms and degrees by many countries around the world, such as India, South Africa, Brazil, Malaysia, Canada, and others. Each country has its history and context that shapes its approach and goals of affirmative action.

Some common features of affirmative action policies and programs are:

  • They target specific groups that have been historically underrepresented or marginalized in certain domains of society, such as education, employment, politics, etc. These groups may be defined by race, ethnicity, gender, caste, religion, disability, or other criteria.
  • They use various methods and criteria to provide preferential treatment or positive discrimination to these groups, such as quotas, reservations, set-asides, points systems, outreach programs, scholarships, mentoring, training, etc.
  • They have specific objectives and time frames to achieve a certain level of representation or diversity for these groups in the targeted domains.
  • They are subject to periodic review and evaluation to assess their effectiveness and impact.

Common Examples of affirmative action are:

Quotas or reservations

  • These are numerical targets or percentages that specify how many seats or positions should be allocated to a certain group in a given institution or sector. For example, India has a system of reservations for scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, and other backward classes in public education and employment.

Preferences or points

  • These are criteria that give extra weight or advantage to a certain group in a competitive process, such as admission or hiring. For example, some universities in the United States use race as one of the factors in their holistic admission process, which considers multiple aspects of an applicant's background and potential.

Outreach or support

  • These are programs or initiatives that aim to increase the awareness, access, and readiness of a certain group for a specific opportunity or field. For example, some organizations offer mentoring, training, scholarships, or networking for women or minorities who are interested in pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM).


It promotes diversity and inclusion

  • Affirmative action can help create more diverse and inclusive environments in education, work, and society, which can foster mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation among different groups and individuals.

It enhances merit and quality

  • Affirmative action can help identify and nurture talent and potential that might otherwise be overlooked or wasted due to discrimination or bias. It can also help improve the performance and outcomes of institutions and sectors by bringing in new perspectives, ideas, and innovations.

It advances social justice and development

  • Affirmative action can help reduce the gaps and disparities that exist between different groups in terms of income, education, health, and other indicators of well-being. It can also help empower marginalized groups and enable them to contribute more fully to the social and economic development of their communities and countries.


It faces resistance and backlash

  • Affirmative action often encounters opposition and criticism from those who perceive it as unfair, unnecessary, or counterproductive. Some argue that affirmative action violates the principle of meritocracy or equal treatment, that it stigmatizes or harms the beneficiaries or the non-beneficiaries, or that it creates more division or resentment among groups.

It has limitations and trade-offs

  • Affirmative action cannot address all the causes and consequences of discrimination and inequality, such as poverty, culture, stereotypes, or attitudes. It may also have unintended or negative effects, such as lowering standards, creating dependency, or reinforcing stereotypes.

It requires constant evaluation and adaptation

  • Affirmative action needs to be carefully designed, implemented, monitored, and evaluated to ensure its effectiveness, efficiency, relevance, and legitimacy. It may also need to be revised or discontinued depending on the changing needs, circumstances, and goals of different groups and contexts.

How does affirmative action work in India?

  • Affirmative action in India is also known as reservation or positive discrimination. It is a system of policies and practices that aim to improve the social and economic status of historically disadvantaged groups, such as scheduled castes (SCs), scheduled tribes (STs), other backward classes (OBCs), and more recently, economically weaker sections (EWSs).
  • Reservation in India operates mainly in two domains: public education and public employment. Reservation allocates a certain percentage of seats or positions to the reserved categories, based on their population share or their degree of backwardness. The current reservation policy is as follows:
    • 15% for SCs
    • 5% for STs
    • 27% for OBCs
    • 10% for EWSs

Reservation in India also applies to other areas, such as political representation, public contracts, welfare schemes, and private sector initiatives.



  • Affirmative action is a complex and controversial issue that has no simple or definitive answer. It reflects the values and priorities of different societies and cultures that seek to balance the ideals of equality and diversity. The way forward for affirmative action is to continue the dialogue and debate among various stakeholders and perspectives, to monitor and evaluate its effects and outcomes, and to adapt and adjust its policies and practices according to changing needs and circumstances.


Q. Affirmative action is a policy that aims to promote equal opportunities for historically disadvantaged groups in areas such as education, employment, and health care. What are its main features and objectives? What are the benefits and challenges of implementing affirmative action in different contexts and sectors? How can affirmative action be improved and sustained in the future?