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Opinion: Supreme Court Makes the Right Call on Affirmative Action, Pleases No One

A photo of the US Supreme Court building in Washington, DC.

This morning, the Supreme Court kicked off its summer blockbuster season with a long-brewing case on affirmative action. We first talked about the case last October, where an aspiring college student named Abigail Fisher sued the University of Texas: Austin for discrimination after not being accepted.

The Supreme Court’s call was agreed upon 7-1. (There were only 8 votes since Justice Kagan recused herself.) To make a long ruling short, the Supreme Court sent the case back to lower courts, saying that they didn’t scrutinize UT-Austin’s admissions process closely enough before sending the case along.

If that sounds like a bit of a cop-out, well… it is. The justices said quite a bit on the nuanced topic, but decided on very little. But all things considered, that was probably the best thing they could have done. Any sweeping decision on affirmative action — for or against the policy — could only have resulted in lots of unfairly disenfranchised people.

A nuanced topic needs a nuanced ruling, and the Supreme Court’s non-decision only reflects the pointlessness of the question “Is affirmative action good or bad?” It’s both and it’s neither. Kicking the case back down to the lower courts just shows that if you want the Supreme Court to give you a straight answer, you need to ask them a more specific question.

Race-conscious admissions discriminate unfairly. Race-conscious admissions help establish and maintain a diverse academic community. Both of these statements are undeniably true, meaning we can’t entirely get rid of affirmative action, even if we haven’t figured out the best way to do it yet.

Personally, I’m more sympathetic toward the UT-Austin administrators trying to establish a balanced admissions system (even if the end result is deeply flawed) than I am toward a single student who didn’t get into her first choice of school. That being said, I’m glad these sorts of cases get brought up, because affirmative action should be scrutinized heavily. It’s the only way to develop, over time, a system better than what we currently have. Delaying a decision was the right call. This topic needs more time to evolve.

Supreme Court Reviewing Affirmative Action

The Supreme Court of the United States

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas, a case that could potentially change the way our country handles affirmative action.

Here’s the bare-bones facts of the case. Abigail Fisher, a student whose application to the University of Texas was rejected, sued the school for discrimination. She’s white, and arguing that if she had been a racial minority, she would’ve been accepted.

This isn’t the first time a case dealing with affirmative action has appeared in the court. 1978′s Regents of the University of California v. Bakke declared that a quota system, that is, saying that a certain number of spots are reserved for people of a certain race, is unconstitutional. 2003′s Grutter v. Bollinger, regarding the admissions policy at the University of Michigan, upheld affirmative action by arguing that a school has an interest in diversifying their student body, and should be permitted to consider race as a contributing factor in admissions.

Like most Supreme Court cases, Ms. Fisher’s experience will ultimately not have much to do with the debate. That’s doubly true in this case, since she’s already graduated from a different university. Her circumstances aren’t particularly complicated; she just attended Louisiana State University instead of Texas.

Instead, the case could become an argument over how we can decide when we’ve had “enough” affirmative action. At least, that seems to be the direction the justices were steering the conversation. In other words, at what point will the country decide that schools and other institutions are “diverse enough” and let the policy be race-blind?

That may be a loaded question, but it’s hard to talk about affirmative action without using loaded questions.

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