The United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case which may potentially remove the right of public educational institutions to use race and ethnicity as a plus factor in admissions decisions. The case, which will not appear before the court until October, has prompted many concerns especially among advocates of affirmative action. These fears are largely fueled by the fact that a majority of the current justices have decided past cases in a manner which illustrates their opposition to affirmative action; Sandra Day O’Connor, who had served as the critical vote in pro-affirmative action decisions, has since been replaced by the more conservative Samuel A. Alito. Current precedent regarding the permissibility of race and ethnic considerations is based on the 1987 decision in Bakke v. UC Regents.“ I do not think that affirmative action is wrong,’ stated UC Riverside student Andrea Suarez, who asserted her belief that affirmative action is valid because it creates a more even playing field. Meanwhile, other students did not hold favorable views of affirmative action. Fourth-year student Parke Hudson said, “I don’t think that affirmative action is needed. I believe that the people that are the most qualified should get into the universities.” UC Riverside student Patrick MacLyman also weighed in on the issue, stating, “Affirmative action is a failed program, and in order to avoid losing out to another candidate for the sake of diversity, I am forced to always decline to state my race. This is not equality.”
The current case was brought forward by a Texas student who argued that she was denied acceptance because of university policy to consider race (among other factors) in admissions; similar to the University of California, the Texas State University system guarantees a spot for the top percentage of high school graduates. The student argued that this strategy already resulted in a sufficient amount of minority students gaining admittance into one of the universities.
The most recent decision affirming affirmative action occurred in 2003 with the Grutter v. Bollinger case. The case passed by a slim 5-4 vote and effectively ruled that schools could consider race as a “plus factor” in admissions. In the decision, O’Connor noted that racial-conscious programs should ideally end in 25 years when minority students have been sufficiently incorporated into a diverse student body—therefore indicating that the impact of a past legacy of racial bias and other forms of discrimination have been overcome.
Current restrictions based on race and ethnicity have banned the use of racial quota systems in which schools are barred from setting aside a specific number of seats for minority students. The majority decision in the Grutter case concluded that since race and ethnicity were only one factor among the many elements that compose diversity, a school’s racial-conscious admissions decisions were valid. However, race and ethnicity could not be the sole determinant for any decision. This sentiment was upheld in 2007’s Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District case, which barred racial-balancing among schools since race was the sole aspect used to determine diversity.
Grutter and the Involved Parents case have upheld the standard that race and ethnicity are only valid considerations when they are viewed only as part of an individual; however, when a public institution treats and views an individual only as a part of a racial group, then this is unjust. “Government must treat citizens as individuals, not as simply components of a racial, religious, sexual or national class…The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” stated Chief Justice John Roberts in the Involved Parents case. Roberts was joined in this decision by current justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy.
Due to the court date’s proximity to the presidential elections, it is expected that President Obama will address the case or the issue of affirmative action in the coming months. In California, the case may not have as significant an impact as other states due to the 1996 banning of affirmative action with Proposition 209.