Affirmative Action in Education is Eliciting Heated Debate by the Supreme Court (Audio)

Earlier today, the Supreme Court presided over a discussion about affirmative action within the jurisdiction of higher education. For many years, the issue of race has played a large role in the process of college and university admissions, and as any Heads who have applied to such a school can testify, most applications feature a section in which applicants are asked to check a box next to the race they feel most soundly represents them. As a concept, affirmative action seeks to undo harm done to a disadvantaged group in a society; for example, giving favor to a job applicant of color over a White applicant as a means of leveling the playing field so disproportionately favoring Whites for centuries. In U.S. political history, the term first came into favor in the early ’60s during President Kennedy’s tenure with Executive Order No. 10925, which stipulated government agencies must “ensure that applicants are employed, and employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” Over the years, the term has taken on different meanings for different groups. For some, it is a means of making things “color blind,” so that race is not at all taken into account in things like education and employment. For others, it is a means by which race is explicitly used to make up for past indiscretions against the victims of prejudice, so as to promote diversity in society.

Naturally, the concept has had its fair share of controversy, with proponents and opponents vehemently crying foul many times over the decades. The Supreme Court has visited the divisive issue several times, but the most recent legal fight deals with affirmative action in college, more specifically the University of Texas. As a report published by NPR today explains, “In the past the court has allowed race as one of many factors in college admissions. But as it has grown more conservative, it has moved to reconsider the issue — including a test case from Texas that was before the court today for the second time.” Essentially, today’s hearing was related to a 1996 ruling that re-emerged when a White applicant to the university claimed she was turned down by the admissions board because of her race. While the school argued their decision was based merely on merit (or in this case, the lack thereof), the prospective student maintained her position and hence that 1996 ruling has once again taken center stage. According to NPR’s Nina Totenberg:

In 1996, the lower courts ruled that the University of Texas could not consider race at all in admissions, and the number of minorities enrolled at the school promptly plummeted by 40 percent. That, in turn, sent the political and educational establishment scrambling. The result was something called the Ten Percent Plan, enacted by the Texas state Legislature in 1997. It guaranteed a spot at UT for any student graduating in the top 10 percent of his or her public high school class, and because Texas schools are largely segregated by housing patterns, that has ensured a small, but significant minority enrollment. Until 2003, 75 percent of the slots were filled that way, with the other 25 percent filled by combining class rank with other factors, including special skills, economic status and leadership qualities. After 2003, when the Supreme Court reaffirmed the constitutionality of affirmative action plans, UT added race and ethnicity as an additional factor that can be considered.

affirmative action 2

This case is particularly contentious because of the makeup of the Supreme Court Justices’ political stances. More conservative Justices are proponents of race not being used at all as a qualifier for admissions, whereas the more liberal-leaning counterparts feel affirmative action helps those denied equal access to a quality education because of race a step up, giving them the opportunities White applicants have a much easier time earning. Needless to say, today’s hearing was not low on heated debate, which can be heard in the audio package below. This case, despite being directly related to the practices of one university, has repercussions on a national level, which makes it an issue that all Americans have a stake in, particularly those who have children yet to enter the world of higher education. As the world becomes more diverse, more interracial, and more interconnected globally than ever before, the idea of race becomes, for many, a detraction from what really matters: that all are given equal opportunities to pursue a quality education. However, such an argument deeply undervalues the notion that those with more money (who, by and large, are not minorities) have a much easier time climbing the social ladders in American society. Where do you stand on affirmative action?

Further Reading:The Psychology of the Affirmative-Action Backlash” at the Nation

Related: Kickin’ It New School: U.S. Education Reform Is Causing Concern for Disadvantaged Students (Audio)