By C.N. Staff Writer
The issue of race in America has been a prolonged conversation for decades. The conversation has spawned many sectors of life from employment to education to politics and religion. It is a key tenant of the debate for the argument for and against affirmative action, defined as the encouragement of increased representation of women and minority-group members, especially in employment.
Affirmative action can also apply in situations of college and graduate school entry. On a Tuesday April 22, 2014, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) decided to uphold Michigan state’s ban on racial preference in college admissions, in the case Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action. The case involves a challenge to Michigan’s Proposal 2, which, according to the SCOTUS website, on its face, amends the Michigan constitution by calling for an everything-blind standard that would effectively end affirmative action programs in the public space. In a 6-2 decision the Court upheld a voter-approved change to the Michigan Constitution in 2006 that forbids the state’s public colleges to make race, gender, ethnicity or national origin a factor in college admissions.
The basis of the case was the 1995 decision of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor to reject the application of Jennifer Gratz, a white applicant. Gratz of Fort Myers, Fla., who sued the university in 1997 after claiming she was rejected because she’s white, said the Supreme Court decision is a “great victory” for Michigan voters. She was personally involved in the campaign for the constitutional amendment.
Attorney General Bill Schuette, who defended the amendment at the Supreme Court, praised the 6-2 decision saying, “We need to have diversity in our campuses … across the state of Michigan and across America. And we need to achieve this diverse student population by constitutional means. That’s the message of this opinion.”
In 2006 voters in the state decided to that race couldn’t be used as a factor in the selection process and since then the school has been taking steps to reach out to minorities and make them feel welcome on campus, although their Black student population has dropped.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg were the two dissenting voices on the decision, with Sotomayor writing a 58-page long dissenting opinion. Justice Sotomayor, who is Latino, cast doubt on the logic and anti-historicism of cases rejecting all rationales for corrective race-specific remedies but diversity. She noted that voters in Michigan could have used other means to eliminate the use of race-sensitive admissions policies. “They could have persuaded existing board members to change their minds through individual or grassroots lobbying efforts, or through general public awareness campaigns,” she says. “Or they could have mobilized efforts to vote uncooperative board members out of office, replacing them with members who would share their desire to abolish race-sensitive admissions policies.”
She further goes on to illustrate that ‘race matters’saying, “Race matters. Race matters in part because of the long history of racial minorities’ being denied access to the political process. Race matters to a young man’s view of society when he spends his teenage years watching others tense up as he passes, no matter what neighborhood he grew up. Race matters to a young woman’s sense of self when she states her hometown, and then is pressed, ‘No, where are you really from?’”
Opponents of the state measure outspent proponents by 3-1. Virtually every establishment group in the state, including the Republican Party, opposed the measure, from business groups to unions to the clergy. Opponents’ ads featured cross burnings and other highly charged symbols of racism to taint the initiative. Still, voters in the state approved the measure with almost 60 percent of the vote.
A handful of other states have also banned preferences through ballot initiatives. But Colorado voters defeated a measure with identical wording to Michigan’s ban in 2008. The Supreme Court’s decision in Schuette doesn’t resolve the contentious issue of affirmative action, but it does uphold the right of the people to decide the issue directly rather than relying on university bureaucrats.
Sotomayor said, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.”
University of Michigan officials have declined comment on the ruling, but released a statement from school President Mary Sue Coleman, who said the school would use “every legal tool at our disposal to bring together a diverse student body.”