Members of the US Supreme Court’s 6-3 conservative majority are questioning the continued use of affirmative action in higher education, in lengthy arguments in which the justices are wrestling with questions of race.
The nation's top judges on Monday were hearing arguments from from six different lawyers in challenges to policies at the University of North Carolina and Harvard.
The policies consider race among many factors in evaluating applications for admission.
During arguments in the first of two cases, the court appeared to be split along ideological lines on the issue of affirmative action.
Justice Clarence Thomas, the court’s second black justice, who has a long record of opposition to affirmative action programmes, said that he did not go to racially diverse schools.
“I’ve heard the word ‘diversity’ quite a few times and I don’t have a clue what it means,” the conservative justice said at one point.
At another point, he said: “Tell me what the educational benefits are?”
Justice Samuel Alito likened affirmative action to a race in which a minority applicant gets to “start five yards closer to the finish line".
But liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the court’s first Hispanic judge, rejected that comparison saying that universities are looking at students as a whole.
Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the court’s newest justice and its first black woman, also said race was being used at UNC as part of a broad review of applicants along 40 different factors.
“They’re looking at the full person with all of these characteristics,” Ms Brown Jackson said.
The Supreme Court has twice upheld race-conscious college admissions programmes in the past 19 years, including six years ago.
Lower courts upheld the programmes at UNC and Harvard, rejecting claims that the schools discriminated against white and Asian-American applicants.
The cases are brought by conservative activist Edward Blum, who formed Students for Fair Admissions.
The group says the US Constitution forbids the use of race in college admissions and calls for overturning earlier Supreme Court decisions.
The schools say they use race in a limited way, but that eliminating it as a factor altogether would make it much harder to achieve a student body that looks like America.
The Biden administration is urging the court to preserve race-conscious admissions.
A Gallup Poll from 2021 found 62 per cent of Americans in favour of affirmative action programmes for racial minorities.
But in a Pew Research Centre survey in March, 74 per cent of Americans, including majorities of black and Latino respondents, said race and ethnicity should not be a factor in college admissions.
A decision in the affirmative action cases is not expected before late spring.