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Posts tagged ‘discrimination’

Supreme Court Backs Up Michigan’s Ban on Affirmative Action


Back in 2006, Michigan voters put an end to race-based affirmative action through a ballot initiative. After eight years of back and forth, the U.S. Supreme Court has finally weighed in, granting Michigan, and the other states that qualify, limit, or outright forbid race-based affirmative action (Arizon, California, Connecticut, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Washington) the power to make this decision on an individual basis.

Only Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg dissented. Justice Kagan recused herself due to her involvement in a case from her previous job similar to this one.

Now, depending on your perspective, affirmative action is either (a) a necessary means to right the unpleasant-but-true opportunity differences between people of different races or (b) a well-intentioned program that cause more harm, divisiveness, and resentment than it fixes. The opinion of the Justices were split along similar lines.

Whatever your opinion, it always helps to have some broader historical perspective to understand the “why” and “how” of the program and not just the “what.”

The idea originally appeared in the Wagner Act of 1935, a Congressional law that asserted numerous basic labor laws, including the right to unionize and protection against discrimination. This didn’t have anything to do with race, just workers’ rights. Throughout the 30s and early 40s, the Roosevelt administration put forth a number of other bills that explicitly forbade discriminatory practices in hiring for public works projects and any other tax-funded employment. The next few presidents followed suit, with Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson all pushing hard for government projects to undo workplace injustices on various minority groups. (I left out Eisenhower, since he generally believed this was more of a state-by-state issue.)

Kennedy’s administration first coined the term “affirmative action,” and it is here the program first adopts the philosophy of “actively” undoing previous wrongs, rather than simply removing previous barriers. This remained more of an idea than a practice until the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Under Title VII of the act, companies are explicitly forbidden from discriminating based on race, gender, creed, country of birth, etc. Even at the time, there was some trepidation that this would be translated as hiring “quotas,” but even politicians of that era insisted that was not the case.

Nixon and Ford continued to hash out some more of the specifics, but by and large, affirmative action wasn’t making headlines again until the 2000s, when critics of the program start becoming more vocal. (Though you could argue that 1990′s Americans with Disabilites Act was a continuation of the original idea.)

This is where my chronology gets a little fuzzy. At some point the national conversation stopped being primarily about the workplace and started being primarily about college acceptance. Why?

My personal theory is that college admissions, which more or less boil down to a massive-scale blind job application, make for a better case study of the complications that arise from the affirmative action. Most jobs have both a more personal acceptance process and a more specific set of requirements. It’s easier for colleges to creep into the dread “quota” territory, intentional or no, when you’re judging a student on little more than a report card and an SAT score. Additionally, colleges have a much greater incentive to promote a certain level of diversity on campus. For most of us, interacting with people from diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds is part of college. High schools tend to be built around small and similar communities. Colleges expand opportunities by building new communities.

In spite of the Supreme Court’s recent decision, I don’t see this topic going away any time soon. It’ll be many more decades of debate before there’s anything approaching a national consensus. So what do you present-day college students think? What do you see as the future of affirmative action?

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.


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