Race and schools reconsidered
The Supreme Court has agreed to take on two cases that could change the way race is considered in the composition of students in America's schools.
One of the cases, Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education, 05-915, deals with the school system in Louisville, Kentucky. Louisville was under a court order from 1975 to 2000 to use busing to desegregate their schools. After the court order ended in 2000, the school district began using racial categories to avoid the blatant segregation that had resulted in the court order in the first place.
Another case, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District, 05-908, deals with the high schools in Seattle. Students may choose to go to any of the ten high schools, but if too many students want to go to a certain high school, district officials have used race as one of the considerations in enrollment. Since the district itself is 60 percent minority and 40 percent white, racial considerations can be used to try to keep a high school's enrollment within ten percentage points of the overall balance. Students can receive preference if they have a sibling at a school, and their racial classification can be utilized as what Seattle district officials call a "tie-breaker."
The use of this language seems intentionally to call upon the last Supreme Court decisions on racial preferences in educational settings, both involving the University of Michigan and decided in December of 2003. Gratz v. Bollinger involved a young white woman who challenged the denial of her application for admission to the University of Michigan. Grutter v. Bollinger involved another white woman who was denied admission to the University of Michigan Law School. Michigan used a points-based system, which included extra points for a potential student if he or she was from an "underrepresented minority." Ms. Gratz claimed that the points awarded amounted to the equivalent of an extra point on one's GPA, which counted for the most points of all.
Retired Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote the majority opinion for the Grutter decision, which upheld the use of race as one of several factors considered for admission:
The court ruled that the law school's affirmative action policy, which considers race as a factor in admissions but does not assign specific weight to it, does not violate the equal protections clause of the 14th Amendment, while the undergraduate policy does.
Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Paul Stevens, David Souter, and O'Connor voted to uphold the law school's affirmative action policy, while Justices Anthony Kennedy, William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas dissented.
O'Connor, writing the majority opinion, said the Constitution "does not prohibit the law school's narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body."
The court agreed with the university's arguments that the law school policy "promotes 'cross-racial understanding,' helps to break down racial stereotypes, and 'enables [students] to better understand persons of different races,'" she wrote.
Thomas, in his dissenting opinion, said, "The law school, of its own choosing, and for its own purposes, maintains an exclusionary admissions system that it knows produces racially disproportionate results. Racial discrimination is not a permissible solution to the self-inflicted wounds of this elitist admissions policy."
However, O'Connor and Breyer switched sides in the undergraduate case, voting to strike down the Michigan undergraduate admissions point system:
Justices Breyer, Kennedy, O'Connor, Rehnquist, Scalia, and Thomas voted to strike down the undergraduate program, with Justices Souter, Stevens, and Ginsburg voting to uphold it.
Rehnquist, writing for the court majority, said the program was unconstitutional "because the university's use of race in its current freshman admission policy is not narrowly tailored to achieve respondents' asserted compelling interest in diversity."
Souter wrote, "It is hard to see what is inappropriate in assigning some stated value to a relevant characteristic, whether it be reasoning ability, writing style, running speed, or minority race."
Justice O'Connor has been replaced by Justice Samuel Alito, who has in the past demonstrated some antipathy to affirmative action. That and the fact that we have a new chief justice in John Roberts makes this a case to watch, aside from its implications.
And just what are the implications? Let's be clear: segregation in American schools still exists, because segregation in housing patterns still exists. Segregation in housing patterns still exists, because economic disparity between the races still exists. One place to attack that disparity is at the schoolhouse door. An equitable education for all must be offered. In places where people have education, they have choices in where they live and what they do that then would render affirmative action unnecessary. Yes, call me a dreamer.
It is also important to note that all states but California stand to be affected by this ruling. California has Proposition 209, which ended the use of race as a consideration in the admissions process. This week UCLA announced that the number of African Americans admitted into its freshman class reached the lowest levels in thirty years. Food for thought.
All students should have access to the finest education possible. If they choose to take advantage of it, their lives will be changed irrevocably. That, to me, is the real meaning of the equal protection clause in the Fourteenth Amendment.