If you haven’t been living under a rock for the past few months, you’ve probably heard that affirmative action is back on the docket of the Supreme Court this term. Even if you have been living under a rock, you’ve probably still heard about it. You may be sick of hearing about it already. (If so, stop reading.) While there is a whole hell of a lot that can (and will) be said about race-based affirmative action in the context of higher education–whether it’s about its consequences for certain minority groups, its main beneficiaries, its effectiveness or its future direction–I’m going to limit myself to an overview of SCOTUS’ recent affirmative action cases and try to point out some of the inconsistencies that the Court must resolve with Fisher v. University of Texas (to be argued this Wednesday), and then close out with a couple of thoughts on affirmative action in general.
Fisher arises directly from a pair of 2003 cases involving the University of Michigan, Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger. Jennifer Gratz, a white applicant to the undergraduate school, argued that UM’s practice of granting underrepresented racial minorities automatic “points” in an admissions equation violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. Barbara Grutter, a white applicant to the law school, argued that UM Law’s practice of taking race into account in its admissions decisions, period, was also unconstitutional.
Now for a little bit of constitutional law: in Equal Protection challenges, a government policy that affords differential treatment between the races is examined under a standard known as “strict scrutiny.” Strict scrutiny means that the policy can only be upheld if the government can show two things: (1) a “compelling state interest,” and (2) “narrowly tailored” means to achieve this goal. Applying this standard, the Supreme Court ruled for Gratz–striking down the undergraduate school’s “bonus” points for underrepresented minorities–but against Grutter. It distinguished the two admissions schemes based on the fact that the law school merely considered race as one of many potential “pluses” and not as an automatic “booster”. Significantly, the Court accepted UM Law’s rationale that student body diversity itself is a compelling state interest “essential” to UM’s educational mission, because we learn to reject racial stereotypes and see members of different groups as individuals (rather than spokespeople for their entire race) when we encounter them frequently in our classrooms.* It then found that the law school had narrowly tailored its use of race in the admissions process. While quotas and automatic points unfairly insulated candidates from comparison with other applicants, taking race into account as part of a holistic process did not. Thus, UM Law’s policy was constitutional. The majority opinion, authored by Sandra Day O’Connor, represented a compromise between the reality of the obstacles still encountered by underrepresented minority students and the American ideal of a pure, colorblind meritocracy. But Justice O’Connor also wrote that she expected race-conscious admissions policies to be “limited in time” and Grutter to be obsolete in twenty-five years.
The Court is sixteen years ahead of schedule, but it looks ready to limit or even overturn Grutter now. In Fisher v. University of Texas, Abigail Noel Fisher argues that her rejection from UT violates the Equal Protection Clause. Under existing Texas law, the top 10% of students in every high school in the state receives automatic admission to state-funded universities. Race is not taken into account for this group of students, which is how UT gets 70-80% of its incoming class. For the rest of the applicants who do not make the 10% cutoff (now competing to be part of the remaining 20-30% of UT’s incoming class), race is taken into account as one factor among many, per the Grutter rule. Fisher, who is white, didn’t make the top 10% of her high school, and didn’t make the cut when her application was passed down to the pool where race was taken into consideration. She contends that the UT plan is unconstitutional because Texas doesn’t need to give underrepresented minorities a boost in the non-top-10% pile. UT’s race-neutral top-10% plan already results in a significant number of Latino and African American enrollees and makes UT’s classrooms plenty diverse enough without having to disadvantage Asian American and white applicants, Fisher claims. Any further consideration of race is just a smokescreen used by UT to admit a target number of Latinos and African Americans per year–in other words, a racial quota, which is expressly banned by SCOTUS. Texas, on the other hand, doesn’t see a problem with making its classes more racially diverse than the top 10% plan would allow and thus considers race as merely one part (“a factor of a factor of a factor of a factor”) of its holistic look at the non-top-10% applicants.
Fisher never directly argues that Grutter was wrong to accept diversity in higher education as a compelling interest, only that UT has already achieved adequate diversity through race-blind means and should stop there. (In other words, there is a “tipping point” of racial diversity after which you become less diverse by admitting too many students of color, despite the irony that white students are currently admitted at a higher rate under Texas’ non-top-10% holistic consideration than under the top-10% rule, thus… increasing racial diversity at UT.) But Fisher also wants the Court to consider clarifying or overturning Grutter altogether because courts have been too deferential to schools’ admission schemes–not truly questioning whether there is both a compelling state interest and narrowly tailored means–thus turning Grutter into a meaningless and unworkable standard.
On this argument, Fisher may very well find a majority of sympathetic Justices. It’s helpful to her that the perspective of the Court has changed dramatically in the past nine years, now that Sandra Day O’Connor has retired and Samuel Alito and John Roberts have moved in. Justices Alito and Roberts have made no secret of their disapproval of race-based affirmative action. Importantly, Roberts ruled in 2007’s Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 that Seattle could not use race as a “tiebreaker” when assigning elementary students to schools. Justice Roberts refused to acknowledge that diversity was a compelling state interest at the grade school level, dismissing Seattle’s goals of reducing racial isolation and racially-entrenched housing patterns. Unlike Justice O’Connor, Roberts believes that society is already colorblind enough, and that all this talk about racism is what’s really perpetuating racism: “[t]he way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
Where things get sticky is when we try to make sense of Grutter and Parents Involved together. Parents Involved did not overturn Grutter; both are good law. Justice Roberts made sure to dispose of Grutter early on in his opinion, noting that it was limited to the realm of higher education and therefore did not apply to Parents Involved, which took place in the context of grade schooling. But this seemingly pat division raises inconsistencies when you look at what the Court is saying about diversity in each case: how can student diversity suddenly become compelling at the age of 18 and above when it hasn’t been for the last 12 years? Does it actually make any sense to say that elementary and high school students don’t need to be exposed to peers of different cultures and backgrounds, but then say that this exposure becomes of paramount importance when you leave for college, where you can then learn to reject racial stereotypes? Wouldn’t it be too late by then, and wouldn’t it make more sense to start teaching these lessons at an early age? Roberts wriggled his way out of this in Parents Involved by appealing to nebulous “considerations unique to institutions of higher education,” though he doesn’t bother to elaborate on how exactly this is different for grade school education. But either you believe that the state has a right to cobble together diverse classrooms in order to teach its young people acceptance and respect, or you don’t. It looks as though the Court’s conservative wing–Scalia, Thomas, Roberts and Alito–is eager to take the latter approach.
As ever, it may come down to Justice Anthony Kennedy, the current swing vote who will surely play as crucial of a role now as Justice O’Connor did in 2003. (Justice Elena Kagan has recused herself, so a 4-4 tie would mean that the Fifth Circuit’s decision upholding the UT plan stands, but if Kennedy votes with the four conservatives, UT loses 5-3.) And on the topic of affirmative action, Justice Kennedy seems to be a bit confused. Kennedy dissented in Grutter. He agreed with Justice O’Connor that diversity was in fact a compelling state interest, but found UM Law’s admissions scheme unconstitutional because he did not think it was narrowly tailored. In Parents Involved, Justice Kennedy again found that the challenged plan met the compelling interest test but not the narrowly tailored requirement. His concurrence broke with Justice Roberts on the question of whether diversity is a compelling educational goal at the grade school level (Kennedy believes it is), but then slammed the Seattle plan for categorizing students as “white” and “non-white” and not being narrowly tailored. Ultimately, his vote alongside the Court’s conservatives decided the case in favor of Parents Involved and the Seattle plan was struck down. What’s unclear, however, is exactly what kind of a plan Justice Kennedy would find narrowly tailored enough, and whether the University of Texas scheme will meet this unknown Kennedy standard. While diversity may survive as a compelling state interest as long as Kennedy hasn’t changed his mind, the UT plan might not–and if it doesn’t, schools across the country will be sent scrambling once again to devise a plan that does pass muster.** Diversity is nice, the Court seems to be saying, but we still haven’t figured out what the best way to achieve that is, or where we cross over the line into too much diversity.
As a final note, it’s worth remembering that colleges and grad schools use affirmative action in their admissions decisions in a multitude of ways that extend well beyond race. Justice O’Connor noted in Grutter that the University of Michigan’s admissions policy included “many possible bases for diversity admissions,” including languages spoken, community service performed and hardships overcome. Studies consistently show that female students get better grades in school and outperform men in universities, but colleges use gender affirmative action to try to admit a male-female student ratio as close to 50-50 as possible (since a student body that skews too much toward one gender will hurt campus social life and be “unappealing”). Schools use geographic affirmative action–if there’s 50 applicants from California and 50 applicants from New York with perfect GPA’s and perfect SAT scores and one applicant from North Dakota with an almost-perfect GPA and almost-perfect SAT scores, there’s a good chance that the North Dakotan is going to be admitted ahead of at least some of the perfect California and NY applicants despite the lower numbers. Athletes get preferences. Legacies get preferences (sometimes getting a boost in admissions chances by as much as a whopping 45%). And the list goes on and on. If a school has 50 applications from clarinet players and one from a piccolo player and it just so happens that the university orchestra’s one piccolo has just graduated, the piccoloist might get a bit of a boost. Amidst a pile of 50 applications from students who speak French as a second language and one from a student who is fluent in Croatian, the Croatian speaker might get some special consideration.
Despite all this, very few people ever kick up a big fuss about the injustices in the admissions process that discriminate against non-athletes, non-legacies, non-piccolo players, non-Croatian speakers and women, choosing instead to cry foul about race-based preferences. After all, Abigail Fisher isn’t mad about the male students or the children of UT alumni who might have cost her a shot at being a Longhorn. She’s mad about the African American and Latino students who got in before her, because it’s somehow easier to swallow the idea that students of color are the ones “stealing” spots they don’t deserve, and that they bring less to the college or grad school experience than other “preferred” students do. Of course, the existing system of affirmative action is not perfect, and there are a lot of ideas out there about what we can do to improve it.*** But the Supreme Court would do well to consider the realities of the holistic admissions process–which already have built-in considerations that benefit white/upper-class/male applicants and that have largely been left unchallenged in the courts–before it tries to convince us that we’ve reached our colorblind ideal, sixteen years ahead of schedule.
*The idea that racial diversity in the context of education can be a compelling state interest is not a new one; SCOTUS had accepted this argument earlier in the 1978 case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke.
**Or they could switch to a completely race-blind admissions process in which top-scoring students constitute all of the incoming class. In the absolute worst-case scenario for supporters of affirmative action, Kennedy may agree with Fisher’s argument that it’s time to stop considering race in higher education, period, and overturn Grutter.
***Richard Kahlenberg, who I’ve linked to multiple times in this post, has done extensive research into both race-based and legacy affirmative action and advocates a switch to income-based affirmative action, an approach which, he argues, would benefit many underrepresented minority students as well as students from lower-income white and Asian American families.
Victoria Kwan holds a J.D. from Columbia Law School in New York and has just completed a clerkship with a judge in Anchorage, Alaska. She tweets as @nerdmeetsboy and will continue to post periodically here on legal issues. Rumor has it she and Jay Pinho are dating.