Affirmative ActionThe Supreme Court dealt another blow to affirmative action on Tuesday, April 22, 2014, upholding the decision of Michigan voters — and by implication similar bans in California and six other states — to forbid the use of race as a factor in deciding who is admitted to state universities.   In a 6-2 ruling, the court brushed aside claims that such bans amounted to discrimination against minorities, ending constitutional challenges to the state ballot measures.
“This case is not about how the debate about racial preferences should be resolved,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said for the court. “It is about who may resolve it. There is no authority in the Constitution of the United States or in this court’s precedents for the judiciary to set aside Michigan laws that commit this policy determination to the voters.”


In a vehement dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor faulted her colleagues for what she said was their “refusal to accept the stark reality that race matters.”


The Constitution does not “give the majority free rein to erect selective barriers against racial minorities,” she said, reading her dissent aloud in court. She cited a brief from the University of California chancellors reporting on the drop in the percentage of African American and Latino students at UC Berkeley and UCLA.


“To take away the rights of minorities is a shocking decision,” said George Washington, a Detroit lawyer who challenged the law. “With this, and the voting rights decision last year, it’s clear the Supreme Court is undoing the rights gained by blacks and Latino people in the 1960s and 1970s.”


The Michigan law, adopted on a 58%-to-42% vote in 2006, says public colleges and universities “shall not discriminate or grant preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color or national operation.” The wording was copied from California’s Proposition 209, which voters approved in 1996.


Besides Michigan and California, affirmative action admissions policies have been banned by voters in Arizona, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Washington and by state officials in Florida and New Hampshire.


Affirmative action and other set-asides for minorities and women have come under increasing fire in recent years. These programs, first started decades ago, were once a given in higher education for everything from admission to financial aid. Today, women and minority students cannot count on the same level of assistance from affirmative action that their parents may have received.


The backlash against affirmative action comes largely from the group that feels damaged by these programs–white males. As the standard of living for African Americans in the United States has risen, white males claim that the “leg up” provided by set-aside programs constitutes an unfair advantage. Similarly, white males point out that since women now make up the majority of college students, they can hardly claim discrimination. The critics of affirmative action promote a merit-based system, in which admission and scholarships are awarded to the most worthy, with race or gender not considered at all.


The exclusively merit-based system, however, has itself come under attack. Supporters of affirmative action claim that there is no fair way to determine merit. Tests, like the SAT, have always produced a disparity in results between blacks and whites. Other factors used to rank college applicants, such as grade point averages and advanced placement classes, vary widely from one school to another. In fact, many minority leaders claim that there is no completely objective way to measure ability. They believe that a person’s background or the obstacles he/she may have overcome are just as important as grades and standardized tests. According to affirmative action supporters, the merit system fails to produce an element vital to higher education–diversity. This, they say, is necessary for a well-rounded college experience, as well as for societal stability.


It is unlikely that affirmative action will be completely eliminated. Too many schools are committed to maintaining a diverse student body. College administrators will find one way or another to achieve balance in their admissions. However, if the current trends continue, women and minorities will need to seek out new sources of college financial aid, and develop new strategies for gaining entrance to the nation’s top universities, but that’s just my take.


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