Affirmative Action saved by landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision

“I am a product of affirmative action. I am the perfect affirmative action baby. I am Puerto Rican, born and raised in the south Bronx. My test scores were not comparable to my colleagues at Princeton and Yale. Not so far off so that I wasn’t able to succeed at those institutions.”

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor

Subsequent to oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Fisher versus University of Texas at Austin et al on December 9, 2015, minority communities around the nation held a collective breath.

There was an abundance of concern across the country that the right-leaning court would deliver a death knell to the nation’s withering Affirmative Action initiative. President Lyndon B. Johnson implemented Affirmation Action with an Executive Order in 1965 and although the order remains in effect, in recent years a series of Supreme Court rulings have placed barriers and made it ever more difficult for minorities and women to bring discrimination related lawsuits.

In a four to three ruling, the Supreme Court held that looking at race is legal under the Equal Protection Clause of the constitution. Across the country, civil rights groups and others breathed a sigh of relief. In an exclusive exchange with the Black Voice News, NAACP President and CEO Cornell William Brooks responded to the news, “The NAACP applauds the Supreme Court’s decision affirming that, when necessary and appropriately tailored, race can be used as one factor in determining admissions to public institutions of higher education.” He continued, “The Court’s decision ensures that public universities, such as the University of Texas at Austin, may lawfully take steps to increase racial diversity on campus, thus fostering new opportunities for generations of children of all races while also helping advance a more just and tolerant society.”

Fisher v. University of Texas challenged the undergraduate admissions system in place at the University of Texas at Austin that contains two components. First, as required by the state of Texas’ Top Ten Percent Law, it offers admission to any students who graduate from a Texas high school in the top 10 percent of their class. It then fills the remainder of its incoming freshman class, approximately 25 percent, by combining an applicant’s Academic Index which includes the student’s SAT score and high school academic performance, along with the applicant’s Personal Achievement Index. The Personal Achievement Index is basically a holistic review of the applicant which considers numerous factors, one of which is race.

The University adopted its current admissions process in 2004 after a year-long-study. As a result of the study, the university concluded that its prior race-neutral admissions system did not reach its goal of providing the educational benefits of diversity to its undergraduate students.

In the lawsuit, Petitioner Abigail Fisher, who was not in the top 10 percent of her high school class, was denied admission to the University’s 2008 freshman class. She filed suit, and alleged that the university’s consideration of race as part of its holistic-review process disadvantaged her and other Caucasian applicants, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause.

Abigail Fisher
Abigail Fisher

The District Court entered summary judgment in the University’s favor, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed that decision. The U.S. Supreme Court initially vacated the Fifth Circuit decision and remanded the case back to the lower court for it to reevaluate the case under the proper strict scrutiny standard; however, on remand, the Fifth Circuit again affirmed the entry of summary judgment for the University. The decision read, “The race-conscious admissions program in use at the time of petitioner’s application is lawful under the Equal Protection Clause.”

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld that opinion on Thursday. In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “A university is in large part defined by those intangible qualities which are incapable of objective measurement but which make for greatness.” He continued, “Considerable deference is owed to a university in defining those intangible characteristics, like student body diversity, that are central to its identity and educational mission.”

Brooks agreed, “Education on college campuses is about more than books and exams.  As the University of Texas and its supporters successfully argued to the Court, the college education experience allows students from a variety of backgrounds and experiences to live and work together in a variety of settings.” According to Brooks, bringing together students from widely varied backgrounds is a critical part of the process of educating a new generation of leaders.  “Particularly in these complex times when racial and ethnic tensions threaten the core values of our nation,” he stressed. “Institutions of higher education must continue to produce graduates who understand, appreciate and embrace diversity and difference.”

“The Supreme Court has affirmed that public institutions of higher learning have a window in which to ensure that the considerable benefits of a racially diverse student body are available to be enjoyed by all of the students on their campuses,” Brooks affirmed. “Our nation benefits when we produce leaders who understand and appreciate others, and we are gratified that the Court has provided a path for public colleges and universities to accomplish this compelling objective.”