This winter, the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) will preside over an Affirmative Action case that is no stranger. In 2013, the court heard a case where a white woman, Abigail Fisher, contended that she was not granted admission to the University of Texas at Austin because of her race. SCOTUS upheld the University of Texas at Austin’s racially conscious admission policy, returning the case to the lower court by holding that the “the lower courts had been too deferential to the school administrators in evaluating the affirmative action program.” But now the case reappears before the Supreme Court this term. Many do not suspect that the conservative bloc of the Court will let the opportunity to revoke this program escape them and will instead, “take matters into their own hands.” Is this a mistake?
A Compelling State Interest
There is a continued interest in achieving diversity among people of color, businesses, political leaders, military leaders, and universities. In the majority opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger, the Supreme Court emphasized that student diversity is a compelling state interest and permitted race to be used for limited purposes in university admissions.
As policy, Affirmative Action gives students from all races a chance to learn in more diverse environments. In spite of this, it is often the subject of high levels of constitutional scrutiny as “the most divisive of all policies” because of the potential it has “to destroy the confidence in the constitution and the idea of equality.” In his dissent to the Grutter decision, Justice Kennedy writes:
"The reviewing court must ultimately be satisfied that no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity. If a non-racial approach…could promote the substantial interests about as well and as tolerable administrative expenses then the university must not consider race."
It is true that “student’s race rarely says much about their ability to thrive at a selective university” and that “race rarely impacts a person’s ability to contribute to a society.” But this does not mean that laws that draw racial lines must be assumed to rely on outdated prejudices rather than on sound policy justifications. Whites are twice as likely to enroll in college than nonwhites. 65% of Black adults and 80% of Latino students fail to complete some form of secondary education while 50% of whites have an associate or a bachelor’s degree. And when the state California abolished Affirmative Action in 1997, the number of Black and Hispanic first-year students declined by 52% in the first year.
A Grave Mistake
It would be a grave mistake to strike down race-based affirmative action. Race is relevant to diversity because it is viewed as a proxy for possession of ideas distinct from well represented groups. People of color have invaluable personal knowledge of the conditions of life as a person of color and so race is a proxy for personal knowledge of what it is like to live and be treated as a member of one’s race. We shouldn’t ignore the fact that this knowledge is intimately dependent on the specific racial identities of students and can be well preserved through a racially conscious admission policy.
If the court rules against Affirmative Action this will diminish the overall goal of diversity not only for people of color in education but also for the institutions that pervade our social and civil lives.