The Supreme Court may soon hear a case—Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard—that could mark the definitive end of affirmative action in higher education nationwide.
If the Court takes the case, the plaintiffs will argue that under no circumstances should race be taken into consideration in college admissions.
They will make this argument before a conservative majority that many observers believe is sympathetic to this view.
If the majority dismisses what remains of the nation’s experiment with affirmative action, the United States will have to face the reality that its system of higher education is, and always has been, separate and unequal.
To understand the loss of race-conscious admissions, we must first appreciate what it accomplished—and what it didn’t.
In 1946, President Harry Truman commissioned a comprehensive report on the state of American higher education.
The study found that 75,000 Black students were enrolled in America’s colleges, and about 85 percent of them went to poorly funded Black institutions.
“The ratio of expenditures of institutions for whites to those of institutions for Negroes,” it noted, “ranged from 3 to 1 in the District of Columbia to 42 to 1 in Kentucky.”
Affirmative action jump-started Black enrollment at majority-white colleges.
And the overall number of Black graduates boomed—more than doubling from the early 1970s to the mid-’90s.
But the drive to reform higher education had slowed, and by the end of that period it was running on fumes.
Affirmative action was hobbled almost from the start, in large part because of a case brought against the regents of the University of California.
平权运动几乎从一开始就受到阻碍，很大程度上是因为一起针对加州大学(University of California)董事的一个案件
In 1973, Allan Bakke, a white man in his early 30s, was rejected by the UC Davis School of Medicine.
He was rejected by 10 other medical schools as well, and again by UC Davis in 1974, perhaps because he was considered too old to begin training for medicine.
But that’s not how Bakke saw it.
UC Davis had apportioned 16 out of its 100 seats for applicants from underrepresented groups, and Bakke sued, arguing that the program violated his rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, as well as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which bars entities receiving federal funds from discrimination.
The California Supreme Court agreed, ruling that colleges could not consider race in admissions.
When the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on October 12, 1977, the courtroom was packed.
Newspapers hailed Bakke as the most important civil-rights case since Brown v. Board of Education.
The Court ultimately released six different opinions, a judicial rarity.
Four justices agreed, in some form, with Bakke that the university’s affirmative-action strategy violated Title VI because it capped the number of white students at 84.
Four other justices argued that the strategy was permissible.
The decision came down to one man: Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr.
Powell’s opinion was a compromise.
Yes, institutions could consider race, but only for the sake of general diversity.
In Powell’s view, affirmative action was not a way of righting historical—and ongoing—wrongs against Black people; it was a way to achieve diversity, a compelling state interest because it benefited all students.
Time and again, courts have upheld Powell’s rationale.
As a result, schools have not been able to design affirmative-action programs to redress discrimination against Black students, or to systematically increase their share of the student body.
Wary of running afoul of the law, schools that have enacted affirmative-action programs have done so too timidly to make a real difference.
Only in rare cases have these programs accomplished much more than keeping the Black share of the student body at pre-Bakke percentages.
Perhaps the best that can be said for this neutered version of affirmative action is that, in states where the practice has been banned, the picture is even bleaker.
In 2006, Michigan prohibited the consideration of race in admissions at public colleges and universities.
Black students made up 9 percent of the University of Michigan before the ban, and 4 percent a few years after it went into effect.
The number has hovered there ever since.