A Look at US Affirmative Action Cases

Posted October 10th, 2012 at 11:15 am (UTC-5)
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The U.S. Supreme Court is considering a case that could affect colleges and universities that use race as a factor in determining admissions in order to achieve diversity.

At issue is a case brought by a white woman who says she was denied entry to the University of Texas because of a school policy that considers race as a factor in admissions.

The issue relates to affirmative action, a controversial set of U.S. laws and regulations initially designed to ensure that people have equal opportunities and receive equal treatment regardless of their race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

The term “affirmative action” was first used by U.S. President John F. Kennedy in a 1961 executive order. Over the years, affirmative action measures have been both strengthened and weakened by legal challenges.

Two of the most significant decisions affecting colleges and universities came in 1978 and 2003.

In the 1978 case “Regents of the University of California versus Bakke,” the Supreme Court invalidated affirmative action quota systems like the one that had been in place at the West Coast school. However, the court upheld the legality of affirmative action more broadly.

In 2003, the high court upheld the right of universities to use race as one of their admissions factors in order to achieve diversity. The case originated from two lawsuits challenging policies at the University of Michigan.

Kevin Brown, a race and education expert at Indiana University, says the Supreme Court's decision in the current case could have international implications.

“I know that a number of other countries have affirmative action programs and many of them actually look at the United States' program to try to figure out what they should do and whether or not what they do is legitimate. I suspect that to the extent that the United States reduces the consideration of race and ethnicity, you are going to see additional arguments, or that the strength of arguments in other countries to do the same will increase.”

Brown tells VOA that he anticipates a high court ruling that could substantially reduce the impact of affirmative action programs in the United States.

He says many U.S. colleges and universities have already moved away from race-based admissions programs.