Supreme Court rejects school racial diversity plans
In a major civil rights ruling, a narrow majority struck down two school-enrollment plans.
Public school districts may not use race as the deciding factor in assigning students to schools.Skip to next paragraph
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While the race of a student can be one of many characteristics taken into consideration to achieve diversity in the student body, it may not become the predominant criterion that determines which students are admitted to the most popular schools in a district.
In a major 5-to-4 decision announced Thursday, the US Supreme Court struck down race-based public school enrollment plans in Seattle and Louisville, Ky., that were designed to maintain racially integrated student populations. The majority justices said the plans were unconstitutional because they relied too heavily on race in violation of the mandate that all Americans be treated equally regardless of skin color or ethnicity.
"What do the racial classifications at issue here do, if not accord differential treatment on the basis of race?" asks Chief Justice John Roberts in his majority opinion.
In announcing the ruling, Chief Justice Roberts gave public-school administrators throughout the nation perhaps their toughest assignment yet: Find a way to remain faithful to the promise of racially integrated schools under the landmark 1954 decision, Brown v. Board of Education, but do it without paying inordinate attention to the racial or ethnic background of the students.
The decision in two consolidated cases is likely to spark legal challenges to many affirmative-action plans and other proactive race-conscious measures aimed at reaching out to African-Americans and other minorities.
The ruling brought immediate and heated reaction.
"We're very outraged by it, and we'll fight it, as we say, by any means necessary," says George Washington, a lawyer with the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action in Detroit. "It's an attempt to end racial progress in this country. It's an attempt to freeze de facto segregation as it now exists in this country."
Others praised the opinion. "School boards will look at this decision and see that Seattle and Louisville failed," says Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity in Falls Church, Va. "That, plus the fact that I think racial and ethnic preferences are increasingly unpopular with students and parents of all races will persuade most schools not to engage in this kind of discrimination."
The 41-page decision backs away from some of the constitutional ground staked out four years ago in June 2003, when then-Justice Sandra Day O'Connor cast the deciding vote in a 5-to-4 decision upholding the use of race to achieve student diversity at the prestigious University of Michigan Law School.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote a dissent in that case accusing the majority justices in the Michigan Law School decision of abandoning the high constitutional bar that had traditionally been applied by the court to the use of race in the context of university admissions. Thursday's decision beefs up that constitutional scrutiny, but Justice Kennedy declined to join the court's four conservatives in adopting a colorblind approach in matters of school enrollment. Such an approach would have potentially closed the door on all race-based plans.
School officials have a compelling interest in avoiding racial isolation and in achieving a diverse student population, Kennedy writes in a concurring opinion. "Race may be one component of that diversity, but other demographic factors, plus special talents and needs, should also be considered," he says.
As in the high court's April 18 abortion decision, the shift in its race-based enrollment jurisprudence can be linked to Justice O'Connor's retirement from the court and her replacement by a more conservative justice, Samuel Alito.
Both sides of the sharply divided court attempted to wrap their arguments in references to Brown v. Board of Education.
In his majority opinion, the chief justice quoted from a second Brown decision in 1955 as requiring government officials "to achieve a system of determining admission to the public schools on a nonracial basis."
Major US Supreme Court rulings on school segregation
1896: Plessy v. Ferguson: Upheld "Jim Crow" laws designed to ensure racial segregation; established "separate but equal" doctrine
1954: Brown v. Board of Education: Ruled that segregation in public schools violates 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law
1968: Green v. County School Board of New Kent County: Found that "freedom of choice" plans were ineffective at achieving desegregation and had to be replaced by more effective strategies
1971: Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenberg Board of Education: Busing white and black students to achieve racial balancing in schools is constitutionally permissible
1978: University of California Regents v. Bakke: Declared unconstitutional a medical school's admissions policy that set quotas for the number of slots for minority students, but did not rule out race-based admissions policies
2003: Grutter v. Bollinger: Decided that the University of Michigan Law School's narrowly tailored race-based admissions policies are justified to foster racial diversity