Michelle Obama: 'My Heart Breaks' After Supreme Court's Affirmative Action Ruling

The former first lady and president said the now-struck policy had “allowed generations of students … to prove we belonged.”

Following the Supreme Court’s decision on Thursday to strike down affirmative action in college admissions, former first lady Michelle Obama released a powerful statement expressing her disappointment and explaining how the now-banned admissions policies impacted her own life and the lives of those around her.

“My heart breaks for any young person out there who’s wondering what their future holds — and what kinds of chances will be open to them,” she wrote.

Obama, who attended Princeton University and Harvard Law School in the 1980s, said that as one of the few Black students on campus, she sometimes wondered if others thought she had benefited from affirmative action.

“But the fact is this: I belonged. And semester after semester, decade after decade, for more than half a century, countless students like me showed they belonged, too,” she wrote. She added that the diversity of experience she and other students of colour brought to her cohort benefited everyone who “heard a perspective they might not have encountered.”

“It wasn’t perfect, but there’s no doubt that it helped offer new ladders of opportunity for those who, throughout our history, have too often been denied a chance to show how fast they can climb,” she wrote.

The Supreme Court decision on Thursday rolled together cases involving admissions at two schools, Harvard College and the University of North Carolina, both of which considered race among factors such as legacy status, recruited athlete status and financial aid eligibility. In the decision, the six conservative justices ruled along ideological lines that affirmative action in college admissions was unconstitutional, prohibiting the use of race as a factor in admissions.

“The Harvard and UNC admissions programs cannot be reconciled with the guarantees of the Equal Protection Clause,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion. “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.”

Affirmative action policies, which came into use during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, were intended to help students of colour access higher education and counterbalance the history of discrimination in schooling, which favoured white men. For generations, racial minorities and women were largely excluded from education at elite colleges.

Critics of affirmative action have suggested the policies are outdated and in fact discriminatory, giving preference to students of some races over others. Supporters have said that the policies remain necessary, both to help students who would otherwise be disadvantaged in admissions as well as to increase the diversity of a student body, something that studies have shown is beneficial to the educational environment as a whole.

In her statement, Obama noted that critics of affirmative action did not question the fairness of other major factors in admissions, like legacy status or sports training. “So often, we just accept that money, power, and privilege are perfectly justifiable forms of affirmative action, while kids growing up like I did are expected to compete when the ground is anything but level,” she wrote.

Former President Barack Obama echoed his wife in a separate statement. “Like any policy, affirmative action wasn’t perfect,” he said. “But it allowed generations of students like Michelle and me to prove we belonged. Now it’s up to all of us to give young people the opportunities they deserve — and help students everywhere benefit from new perspectives.”

Both Obamas encouraged those who want to support equality in education to support organisations working for the cause, including UNCF, Hispanic Scholarship Fund, and Thurgood Marshall College Fund.

“Today is a reminder that we’ve got to do the work not just to enact policies that reflect our values of equity and fairness, but to truly make those values real in all of our schools, workplaces, and neighbourhoods,” the former first lady wrote.


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