This past Tuesday, the Supreme Court decided to uphold an amendment to Michigan’s state constitution that banned race-conscious admissions policies in higher education in the case, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action.
Affirmative action has been a deeply debated issue since its implementation in the 1960s. It is seen by some as a way to level the playing field for minority students, a tool to give minority students the opportunity they might otherwise not have to pursue higher education. Others see affirmative action as unfair preferential treatment for minority students, who are accepted not for their merit, but for their skin color.
In 2003, the Supreme Court upheld a race-conscious admission policy at the University of Michigan Law School. In Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger, the Court ruled that affirmative action is constitutional only if it treats race as one factor among many, and if it does not automatically increase on applicant’s chances of acceptance simply because of his or her race.
Displeased with the 2003 decision, opponents of affirmative action moved to amend the state constitution. By 2006, Michigan voters banned the consideration of race or sex in public education and employment.
The debate rages on. Brooke Kimbrough, a black high school student with impressive extra curricular credentials, applied to University of Michigan in the fall. After being wait-listed and then denied acceptance, she decided to fight the state’s ban on race-conscious admission policies in higher education.
Affirmative action was implemented to fix the historic wrongs against African Americans and Native Americans and to fight discrimination in higher education and employment. Affirmative action addresses the reality that most minorities attend inner city public schools that are not as good as the private schools or suburban public schools most white students attend.
Despite affirmative action’s goals to ensure more equal access to higher education, the Supreme Court, with its 6-2 decision, ruled to uphold Michigan’s ban of affirmative action policies. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for a three-member plurality, claimed that the ruling was a modest one. He sided with the voters who undertook “a basic exercise of their democratic power,” and who he claimed have a right to act through their state’s political process to decide on this issue.
“This case is not about how the debate about racial preferences should be resolved. It is about who may resolve it,” Kennedy added.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued that it is not about who decides but how this issue is decided. She read aloud from her 58-page dissent, an act that often suggests how strongly a justice feels about a case.
Sotomayor stated that while the Constitution “does not guarantee minority groups victory in the political process… it does guarantee them meaningful and equal access to that process. It guarantees that the majority may not win by stacking the political process against minority groups permanently.”
The effects of the 2006 Michigan amendment can already be seen. In 2008, black students comprised for 6.8 percent of the freshman class at University of Michigan; in 2012, that number dropped to 4.6 percent. The Michigan amendment has already resulted in a 25 percent drop in minority representation in Michigan’s public universities and colleges.
Justice Sotomayor also addressed the conservative members of the court, who often suggest the best way to reach racial equality is to ignore race. As Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote in a 2007 case, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
Sotomayor responded that this view is “out of touch with reality” and that “race does matter.” Affirmative action was put in place to address racial inequality, inequalities that continue to exist today and that have become institutionalized. As Sotomayor stated, “we ought not sit back and wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society.”
If we believe that higher education is the way to improve one’s economic standing and to escape poverty, then shouldn’t we make higher education more accessible to those minorities that often live in poverty?
I would argue that we still have not come far enough in the fifty years since affirmative action was first implemented to dismantle now. Pubic universities still don’t proportionally represent the black or Latino population.
Fourteen percent of the state in Michigan is black; however, only 5 percent of the student body at University of Michigan is black.
Most suburban white students have the advantage of good public schools, SAT and ACT tutoring, and college counseling, while many black students that live in the inner cities don’t. Affirmative action was supposed to address this disadvantage. Without it, diversity is drastically declining at our schools of higher education.