Yesterday, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a race-conscious admission program at the University of Texas, Austin. In a 4-3 decision, the court reaffirmed the decision of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Fisher v. University of Texas, and by doing so, protected the right of universities to use race-conscious affirmative action programs to increase diversity. This is big. Not only does the ruling preserve UT’s admission process, it also affirms the fact that race-based protections and diversity policies matter in higher education.
This ruling brings a lengthy legal battle to a close. The case began in 2009, when Abigail Fisher, a white Texas resident, claimed that she was denied admission to the University of Texas because of her race. Under UT’s unique admissions process, approximately three-fourths of freshmen are admitted under a state law commonly known as the 10 percent plan, in which all in-state students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high schools are guaranteed admission. The Fisher case took aim at the second part of the admissions program- the considerations for students who fall below the top 10 percent. These applicants must undergo a holistic evaluation that considers a variety of factors, including race.
Despite the fact that University of Texas administrators released records demonstrating that Fisher simply wasn’t academically qualified to attend UT, her team continued to argue that race motivated the decision, in violation of Fisher’s 14th amendment rights to equal protection. Her case was picked up by Edward Blum, the director of the Project on Fair Representation, who led the case that gutted the Voting Rights Act. Similar to the key components in Shelby County v. Holder, the Fisher case threatened to turn back the clock on race-based protections, but this time- the target was public universities. The central argument of the Fisher case was a simple one- using race to address racism is racist. This assertion has proved to be a powerful legal and political tool in the post-Brown v. Board era. Colorblind education policies essentially shattered public school integration efforts in the late 1980’s, and the country has largely continued to buy into those policies today. Stripping public universities of affirmative action programs would have enormous effects on the demographic makeup of both students and faculty. We’ve seen the results; they’re not pretty.
So when the Fisher case was picked up by the Supreme Court for the second time, I held my breath. This case hits close to home. My journey to college, just like millions of others, relied on a little-known affirmative action program at the University of North Carolina. And as a former university employee, it’s no secret to me that race-based policies are the foundation of our university systems. In the past year, we’ve seen more evidence and research on this topic than ever before. All the while, students of color, particularly women and girls of color, continue to face enormous barriers in their schools and communities that hinder their path to higher education. So it should be obvious why I was holding my breath. There are a lot of ways people of color are disenfranchised from higher education, and this case was threatening to add another. But thankfully, the story has a happy ending. UT wins, the Fisher team loses, and public universities across the country have the freedom to build diverse student bodies with the help of affirmative action programs. For now, at least, we’ve won the battle.