It appears that my alma mater will be on the leading edge of what could be a watershed decision by the Supreme Court on affirmative action in the use of race-based criteria in college admissions. They have been there before–in breakthrough segregation cases like Sweatt vs. Painter and the previous affirmative action case of Hopwood vs. Texas–but this one, Fisher vs. The University of Texas, has the potential to end once and for all the notion of race-based admissions, either as a remedy for previous discrimination or, more importantly, to achieve diversity in admissions as a compelling state interest going forward. This latter manifestation of affirmative action, diversity as a compelling interest, was established by Justice Harry Blackmun in 1978 in the Bakke decision in California to continue to justify race as a factor in college admissions, and this concept was sustained in the Grutter vs. Bollinger decision in 2003, when Justice Sandra Day O’Conner was the deciding vote in a 5-4 decision.
There are supposedly educational benefits for students in this compelling interest of diversity, in the form of the unique viewpoint contributions that the students so admitted bring to the institution, but all of those contributions typically identified are racially stereotypical, and therefore racist. In fact, the very benefits claimed come as a result of using these students as a means to the ends of others. Furthermore, extensive studies have shown not only that these preferential admissions do not benefit powerless minorities, but that they very often do harm to the groups they are designed to help. Interestingly, in the face of this evidence and the pending Supreme Court review, the Obama administration has issued new guidelines for enhancing diversity in college admissions and proposing new ways in which colleges might factor race into their admissions process.
We have a much different court now than in 2003 and there is reason to hope and believe that it will finally come to the conclusion that this definition of diversity is an open-ended objective and serves as a continuing cover for discrimination that violates our sense of merit and racial equality and that neither serves a compelling state interest nor benefits the people it has been designed to help. Let’s quit mending it and end it.
This is an excerpt of what I had to say just before the Grutter decision in 2003 about the alternatives to the flawed approach of discrimination to achieve diversity, and it’s still valid today:
“It is clear that enrollment parity for economically and socially disadvantaged students will come only when these students are much better prepared for higher education by our public school system. When almost one-half of minority children do not complete high school and over one-half of all third graders cannot read at grade level, the lucky few who fit into the “diversity” quotas are insignificant in number compared to those condemned to permanent second class status by failing public schools.”