So What Exactly Does The Supreme Court’s Affirmative Action Ruling Mean For You?


“The Supreme Court ruled this week that majority populations can remove programs that assist and aid minority populations and that our society no longer experiences racial discrimination.”

“The Supreme Court ruled this week that the ballot box is stronger than out-of-touch politicians and upheld the right of the voter to overturn bad legislative actions.”

While the two statements seem contrary, both are being hurled around in light of Tuesday’s ruling in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action. Few issues generate as much controversy and spark as many heated passions as affirmative action.

Media outlets and talking heads are either praising the 6-2 majority opinion which allows the general population to decide whether or not race should be a factor in college admissions. Conversely, others are championing the direct and vibrant 58 page minority opinion which demands a discussion and reflection on race within our country. (Disclaimer: I’m on team Sotomayor and Ginsburg)

Whether through offensive and petty information campaigns at major universities or through the evidence of legislative re-segregation of the South, race is once again a forefront issue in today’s education debate.

What exactly is affirmative action in higher education? Is it a system of racial quotas? Does it reinforce racial stereotypes and divisions? Does it allow minority students to be accepted in lieu of equally or higher qualified Caucasian students?

  1. For better or for worse, affirmative action, or race-sensitive standards, in higher education exist to seek to remedy centuries of discrimination and provide educational opportunities to minority students. (I, along with many, prefer not to use the term affirmative action due to the negative and incorrect connotations that accompany it.
  2. Race based quotas have been illegal since 1978. Find a new talking point, please.
  3. Does it reinforce stereotypes? It might, and this is why many are calling for affirmative action based on economic disadvantage rather than a race based system.
  4. Ask Abigail Fisher how well that argument worked out for her.

While I am an advocate of race sensitive programs and programs that address admissions based on class and economics, I recognize the shortcomings and failings of race-sensitive admissions standards. They aren’t perfect programs but exist in a complex system wherein there are no easy answers. These programs have provided tangible benefits and have led to discussion on the role that race continues to play within our society.

The majority in Schuette represent the widespread belief that we live in a post-racial society and race based admissions reinforces and highlights racial divides. The opinion champions the voters who passed an initiative by a margin of 58% that race-based standards were outdated and not representative of the society in which they lived. The opinion is of the belief that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

Sotomayor, who is an outspoken proponent and a self-proclaimed by-product of race conscious admission standards, argues in her minority opinion that our society is not beyond race and that by allowing voters to determine the rights of minority populations that decades of progress will be lost.

Odds are you won’t be reading the Court opinion because you have a plethora of listicles, Buzzfeed quizzes, and your horoscope to catch up on. I get it. If nothing else, you need to take note of these passages from the minority opinion:

“[The majorities’] refusal to accept the stark reality that race matters is regrettable… The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination…”

“The Constitution does not protect racial minorities from political defeat… but neither does it give the majority free rein to erect selective barriers against racial minorities.”

I had the distinct privilege of meeting with Justice Clarence Thomas last summer and enjoyed a hearty political discussion and even took part in a little verbal sparring with him. The issue of race sensitive admissions came up and he spoke about the abuse, taunting, and stigma that he has carried for decades due to his “15 cent Yale Law degree“. Although I couldn’t disagree more with his legal philosophy and his approach to the Constitution, here was a brilliant man who was a byproduct of affirmative action and who has taken every opportunity to speak out against it. This caused me, and the 30 or so other Truman Scholars at the Court, to take a moment and reflect on where we stood on this issue. I’ve spent the last 8 months enjoying thought-provoking debates and reflection on the issue.

Race sensitive admissions standards have been banned in eight states and have now been validated by Tuesday’s decision. There is no middle ground and no easy way to conclude where you stand on the issue of race-sensitive admissions programs and I think that that’s a great thing. I think the fact that there is continuing discussion and hearty debates on the issue prove that the majority opinion is incorrect in their belief that we are a post-racial society that no longer needs to focus and emphasize race.

Several groups are refusing to stop the fight for race-conscious admissions programs and I wish them the best of luck. As the ACLU so eloquently argued, “minority students and others who support a broadly diverse student body should not have to overturn a constitutional amendment simply to have their voices heard in the admissions process when everyone else can go directly to the university.” 

featured image – Shutterstock