Supreme Court Questions Affirmative Action
Last week, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments concerning one of the most closely watched cases of the Court’s current term. The case, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, will not only decide the future of affirmative action in higher education, but it also touches on three fundamental American characteristics—race, opportunity, and achievement.
Fisher v. University of Texas represents the first legal challenge to affirmative action the high court has confronted since 2003, when a majority led by former Justice O’Connor upheld the practice in the case, Grutter v. Bollinger.
The current controversy began when the University of Texas at Austin denied Abigail Fisher—a white high school graduate from Texas—admission to the university because of her race, not because of her academic achievements or competency.
Attorneys for the state of Texas argued that the use of race-based components in college admissions practices is allowable under the Court’s ruling in Grutter; however, Fisher’s attorneys countered that affirmative action violates an individual’s rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Historically, the Court has allowed for affirmative action under the argument that states have a compelling interest in establishing an environment of diversity in their institutions of higher education. In the 2003 Grutter case, Justice O’Connor asserted that a diverse student body helps to cultivate a campus culture of respect and temperance, which graduates will eventually spread to their community, state, and nation. Additionally, defenders of affirmative action see the practice as a way to rid our nation of racial barriers that prevent “equal opportunity” of education for all students.
There is no doubt that the United States’ history of race relations has been laden with many instances and systems of injustice, but that does not excuse government-sanctioned violations of individual rights for the purpose of correcting past wrongs.
Although affirmative action may appear fair and just, the practice does not exist in a vacuum. Each “corrective measure” requires the loss of educational opportunity for another equally (if not more) qualified and deserving individual.
As Martin Luther King once said, “[Individuals] should not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
In the case of college admissions, this would mean assessing a candidate based upon his or her achievements, merits, academic competence, and preparedness for higher education.
Furthermore, advocates of affirmative action should think more deeply about what the policy does to the self-esteem and self-worth of those admitted under its principles. Should college admissions councils say to minority students, “Well you weren’t the most qualified or competent applicant, but we accepted you because we need to establish an environment of diversity?” Of course not—such sentiments are degrading, and ultimately damaging, to both the student and the future of higher education.
Ultimately, affirmative action is wrong because it undermines individualism, opportunity, and the potential for achievement. It violates constitutional principles of the Fourteenth Amendment by placing people in race-based categories or classes when the very purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment was to protect individuals from nonsensical and unjust discrimination.
If the Supreme Court respects individual rights and the importance of true opportunity and achievement in higher education, it will overturn the precedent set in Grutter v. Bollinger and end race-based components of admissions policies for institutions of higher education.