by Maeve O’Brien, ’16
Last December, the Supreme Court heard the case Texas v. Fisher for the second time. This case is controversial by nature, as it discusses the constitutionality of a University of Texas affirmative action policy.
Affirmative action is a policy in which institutions attempt to improve opportunities from historically excluded groups. Affirmative action as we know it in education today was born from the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement. Its intention was to provide equal chances for women and minorities to succeed.
The University of Texas’s affirmative action policy complied with a 1997 state law requiring that the university automatically admit all students in the top ten percent of their high school class. For these students, race is not considered as a factor; for everyone else, it is.
Abigail Fisher, a Caucasian female, was denied admission in 2008, and immediately sued the university. She claimed that her 14th amendment right to equal protection under the law was being violated. Fisher was not in the top ten percent of her high school class, and thus her race was considered when applying to the university.
Fisher’s case was heard by the Supreme Court in 2012, where it was sent back to the lower court, then appealed to the Supreme Court again.
During the long and fiery hearing in early December, the justices seemed divided on the issue. Conservative justices Alito and Scalia were outwardly critical to the arguments made by the University of Texas lawyer; liberal justices Ginsberg, Breyer, and Sotomayor seemed in support of the affirmative action plan, according to CNN.
Justice Kagan will not be deciding on the case because she has bias going into the hearing, as she dealt with the case as former Solicitor General. Justice Scalia passed away on Feb. 13, so only seven justices will write the opinions.
This Supreme Court case thrusts affirmative action into the national limelight, an issue that has been growing increasingly contentious.
Racial unrest on college campuses seems to be at a high in the country right now, with recent incidents transpiring at the University of Missouri and Yale University capturing the attention of the press and the public.
In order to understand the implications of this case, one must thoroughly understand what affirmative action is, why it exists, and how it has been treated by the Supreme Court in the past.
Initial affirmative action initiatives focused on helping African American students. This was viewed as a form of reparation for the centuries African Americans spent being marginalized and oppressed by white Americans.
Today, affirmative action is a tool used to promote diversity on college campuses in order to prevent homogeneity in ideas and backgrounds in their students.
In past Supreme Court cases Regents of the University of California v. Bakke and Grutter v. Bollinger, the Supreme Court ruled that affirmative action was constitutional as long as it was not operating off of a quota system, or making race a determining factor.
This policy has been effective in raising acceptance rates of African Americans; such programs have resulted in the doubling or tripling of their minority student population. These universities come to better reflect the makeup of the surrounding community through affirmative action. This level of higher education has served this demographic well after college as well.
However, some argue that while affirmative action promotes the success of some racial or ethnic groups, it hinders the success of others.
Senior Elise Hummel sees the effects of affirmative action firsthand through watching her friends apply to college.
“Nowadays [affirmative action] is viewed as a process through which colleges and universities can promote and cultivate diversity on their campuses,” Hummel said. “However, the implications of this noble cause are that other races, namely Asians and Indians, are seemingly disadvantaged by the process.”
Hummel also recognizes that while she may think it only increases racial tensions in society, her opinion is heavily influenced by her own race and socioeconomic status.
“My perspective is that of a white, upper-middle class girl from Ohio. The fact that I’m me bears a lot of weight in my view,” Hummel said. “So I understand that I am not exposed to the gruelling racial discrimination that still exists in our country today.”