WASHINGTON, July 1, 2013 ― The Supreme Court’s decision on race-based affirmative action was nearly ignored in the glare of publicity over its decision on DOMA. Windsor v. United States struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, but the court’s opinion in Fisher v. University of Texas upheld the same principles.
A white student named Abigail Fisher sued the University of Texas at Austin after she was denied admission. She alleged that less-qualified minority students were accepted while she was not, suggesting racial discrimination. The Supreme Court’s opinion remanded the case to the lower court for reevaluation and included powerful language to hold universities to a tough standard of strict scrutiny when they consider race in their admissions processes.
The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees “equal protection under the laws,” a vital component of the decision. In order to allow any sort of racial preference, the Court reaffirmed that there must be a “compelling governmental interest.” A university must prove a very distinct educational benefit that results from increased diversity and demonstrate that it is vital to the state to preserve that benefit.
According to Justice Clarence Thomas in his concurring opinion, “The Fourteenth Amendment views racial bigotry as an evil to be stamped out, not as an excuse for perpetual racial tinkering by the State.”
In fact, he argues that affirmative action, a form of racial discrimination, continues to hurt the reputation of all minority students and professionals. When minority students are admitted to a university that practices affirmative action, he argues, their achievements are taken by other students and employers with a degree of skepticism. People often assume a student’s race is what secured his or her acceptance.
In his autobiography, My Grandfather’s Son, Thomas recounts his personal experiences with affirmative action. “Many asked pointed questions unsubtly suggesting that they doubted I was as smart as my grades indicated. Now I knew what a law degree from Yale was worth when it bore the taint of racial preference.”
Other scholars have echoed Thomas’ concerns. Stuart Taylor and Richard Sander, authors of Mismatch, argue that minority students are made worse off academically by affirmative action. For example, when minority students are admitted into a university for which their academic credentials are not sufficient, they are much more likely to drop out. Should we really continue to support a policy that promises success but in fact harms the futures of minority students?
The Supreme Court’s ruling on Monday was not revolutionary. It was a narrow application that avoided settling the question too strongly on either side. It is clear, however, that the false promises of affirmative action are beginning to be realized. As time goes on, we can hope that one day race plays no factor in a student’s admission to college, regardless of any good intentions.
As “The Economist” magazine so eloquently observes, “Governments should tackle disadvantage directly, without reference to race. If a school is bad, fix it. If there are barriers to opportunity, remove them. And if Barack Obama’s daughters apply to a university, judge them on their academic prowess, not the colour of their skin.”
 Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S., 326
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