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WASHINGTON — Affirmative action supporters and counterprotesters clashed on Capitol Hill on Thursday following the Supreme Court’s decision effectively striking down affirmative action in higher education.
The Supreme Court delivered a severe blow to affirmative action in its 6-2 ruling against Harvard on Thursday, reversing nearly 50 years of precedent.
The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts ’76, found that Harvard’s and the University of North Carolina’s race-conscious admission policies violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
Ahead of the Court’s ruling on affirmative action, student organizers had planned a rally and press conference featuring members of several advocacy organizations, including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Due to poor air quality conditions in Washington on Thursday, the press conference was moved indoors to the Friends Committee on National Legislation building.
“Originally, this wasn’t supposed to happen because of the air quality, but we knew we just couldn’t stand aside and let SFFA speak for people who are supposed to be students applying and take that narrative,” said Nahla C. Owens ’25, who protested in support affirmative action.
Owens said while she was not surprised by the Court’s decision in the Harvard case, her “heart was sinking” when it was announced.
“My grandma had been working hard to desegregate her school district, and to think that the progress she had worked for and that her generation had worked for is now being rolled back is just — it’s like a slap in the face, honestly,” she added.
While organizers held the press conference at the FCNL building, students led a protest a block away, at the Capitol.
According to Hana R. O’Looney ’26, the demonstration was entirely student-organized – a change from the original plan to protest alongside seasoned organizers.
“They decided to move that indoors and they actually said, ‘No students allowed,’” said Elyse G. Martin-Smith ’25, the political action chair of the Harvard Black Students Association.
“It’s really important to us that we have student voices in this work because we are the ones who are directly impacted,” she said.
The Asian American Coalition for Education also held an outdoor press conference just minutes before students planned to speak, but both groups were moved away from the courthouse by police due to reports of a “suspicious package.”
The two groups congregated on the edge of the Capitol grounds. At one point, there was a confrontation between pro- and anti-affirmative action demonstrators.
Kashish Bastola ’26 — who flew to Washington from St. Louis Thursday morning — said he had a conversation with an older woman that “escalated really quickly.”
“I asked her, ‘Are you proud of yourself? Do you think you’re representing our community?’ And she said she doesn’t even identify as South Asian and that she thinks that our country has been ridden by race,” Bastola said.
“I think it’s just really sad because if you look around right now you’ll clearly see division. And this is exactly what we’ve been fighting against,” he added.
After the SFFA supporters moved away from the street, student organizers led chants and gave speeches. Student speakers said they would remain committed to holding their schools accountable.
“We need to put pressure not only on the schools that we are a part of,” Martin-Smith said.
“Personally I will be putting a lot of pressure on Harvard. Harvard has so many ways to improve,” she added. “And some of those ways include striking down legacy and donor admissions.”
Bastola also said that President-elect Claudine Gay and other top Harvard administrators “can expect continuing conversations on ethnic studies,” “cultural centers” and “the incident that happened at Leverett House last school year” — referencing an April swatting attack at the dormitory.
Though Thursday’s decision came as a disappointment to affirmative action proponents, students maintained optimism for a way forward.
“There is still a lot of hope because there are other ways that we can evaluate someone’s identity,” said Dian Yu ’26, who also attended the protest.
“I do feel like because there’s still room for people to talk about their identities in their essays, interviews, etcetera, it’s still possible to take into account the ways that people can contribute from all walks of life,” she added.
“I still think there’s a lot we can do,” she added.
After news came down of the decision, Joel O. Crawford ’26, an intern at the House of Representatives, left work to watch the demonstration. Crawford said he was “nervous” to see changes in the student body going forward.
“Even now after reading it, there is a lot of ambiguity in how schools can operate and how they are allowed to use race even with affirmative action being overturned,” he said.
“It doesn’t stop here. I don’t want universities to think they have a cop-out or an excuse,” Owens said. “They’re still responsible for ensuring that they have diverse populations on their campuses.”
Correction: July 5, 2023
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Nahla C. Owens ’25 is a member of Defend Diversity. In fact, Defend Diversity is not a formal organization.
Clarification: July 5, 2023
This article has been updated to clarify that the planned press conference was to include members of several organizations, including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, but that they did not organize the event.
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