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In Texas affirmative-action ruling, Supreme Court seeks race-blind admissions

A Supreme Court ruling in the University of Texas affirmative-action case shows a stronger leaning toward race-neutral ways to help minorities. Indeed, new ways are needed to help the disadvantaged.

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    Students walk at the University of Texas at Austin last year. The flagship campus - once slow to integrate - is now among the most diverse in the country. The Supreme Court ruled Monday on a case involving the school's affirmative-action admissions policy.
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In a ruling Monday, the US Supreme Court gave its sternest warning yet that the use of racial discrimination in admissions should be the last choice for public schools in achieving a racially diverse learning environment for students.

In a rare 7-to-1 decision, the justices told a lower court to make sure the University of Texas proves that “no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity” that would justify race-based policies. The justices admonished a lower court for taking it merely on “good faith” that the university had tried hard enough to avoid discrimination.

So now many schools may need to rethink the ways they can achieve both the benefits of campus diversity and – without saying as much – a legal way to admit underqualified minorities. Many higher-ed institutions, for example, are working with high schools to better prepare minorities for college.

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Texas had already gone far in developing a race-neutral method. It guarantees admission to students who graduate in the top 10 percent of each state high school – many of which are dominated by blacks or Hispanics. But that was not enough for the state. It also uses race as a factor in admitting minorities who don’t meet educational standards.

When a white student, Abigail Fisher, was denied admission to the University of Texas, she went to court. With this ruling, her case now goes back to an appeals court which, in the eyes of the justices, failed to apply “strict scrutiny” in evaluating the school’s affirmative-action plan compared with nonracial approaches.

“Strict scrutiny imposes on the university the ultimate burden of demonstrating, before turning to racial classifications, that available, workable race-neutral alternatives do not suffice,” the high court’s opinion stated. In other words, the Constitution’s provision against discrimination cannot be violated with ease. A compelling case must first be made.

The decision reflects not only a stiffening of the high court’s stance against the use of race in public decisionmaking but also in society as well. Public support for affirmative action has dropped from 61 percent in 1991 to 45 percent today, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. And in a speech last month to an all-black college, President Obama told graduates that they have “no time for excuses” in achieving success.

“In today’s hyperconnected, hypercompetitive world, with millions of young people from China and India and Brazil – many of whom started with a whole lot less than all of you did – all of them entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything that you have not earned,” Mr. Obama said at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

The message in the court’s ruling is that Americans need to move faster to find new or better ways to help the disadvantaged that don’t step on legal rights. In a 2003 ruling, the court said it “expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary....”

In that time frame, whites will be heading toward minority status in the United States. Among students entering college in 2001, nonwhites were 47 percent, up from one-third just 15 years earlier.

The struggle over affirmative action in colleges is only a minor part of a larger effort to reduce an inequality in opportunities for low-income Americans. The roots of poverty are deep and complex, with college admissions being a small contributor to closing the gap between races. Even on campuses with high diversity, self-segregation by students remains prevalent despite the obvious merits of diversity in exposing students to different perspectives.

The best leg-up for disadvantaged youth lies in early childhood education and in supporting parents in such activities as reading to their children. As courts turn down solutions that compromise basic rights, Americans must step up in support of solutions that are both effective and constitutional.

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