The Cases that Preceded the Affirmative Action Ban

By: Emma Johnson

A year ago, the Supreme Court decided that affirmative action programs, where institutions systematically considered race in applications, violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.  Since then, the sole way race can be considered in an application is through an essay. Following the court’s ruling in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, I’ve encountered widespread misunderstanding on the purpose of affirmative action and its operation. Specifically, many claim that those admitted through affirmative action are less qualified because schools save a certain number or percentage of seats for students of color. This is a misunderstanding of the process within university admissions, and there are two notable Supreme Court cases which prove that. 

In Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the Supreme Court ruled on a case involving the use of racial quotas in UC Davis’s admission policy for medical school. At this time, UC Davis saved 16 out of 100 seats for people of color in their medical school classes. Bakke was rejected from UC Davis Medical School and sued, claiming that the use of racial quotas granted people who were less qualified than him admission to UC Davis, therefore discriminating against him because he was white. The Supreme Court ruled in his favor, outlawing the use of racial quotas in any admission program. 

In this decision, the Court also outlined ways that affirmative action programs could be constitutionally implemented; it must serve a compelling state interest and the program must be narrowly tailored to fit that interest. The Court says that ensuring a diverse student body could be a compelling state interest, therefore allowing affirmative action programs to continue if they did not use racial quotas, as that did not provide equal opportunity and was not narrowly tailored to their interest. 

The next case is Gratz v. Bollinger, in which the University of Michigan had awarded points to applicants belonging to minority groups in their admissions process to the extent that their race could be a determining factor in their admission. The court ruled that this was also not narrowly tailored to fit the interest of ensuring diversity on campus. Essentially, this case serves as a reminder that any policy that looks like a percentage or quota will be struck down within our court system. 

The more you know about the affirmative action ban, the better you can explain it to someone who doesn’t understand. Once you understand the relevant Supreme Court precedent, the purpose of affirmative action can be talked about in a space of factual accuracy.  

If you prefer to engage with anti-racism education through visual media, consider watching this video that informed this article: