On March 27, a federal district court struck down the University of Michigan Law School’s affirmative action admissions plan, ruling that the school’s interest in a diverse student body did not justify using racial preferences. This past December another court in the same district reached the exact opposite result, finding the university’s parallel affirmative action program for undergraduates was justified by diversity.
These diametrically opposed rulings on a single university’s affirmative action programs perfectly mirror the current division in the nation’s courts. Affirmative action, a near-universal practice in universities across the nation, is under serious legal attack. Disappointed white applicants have sued universities in Georgia, Washington and Texas as well as Michigan.
As in Michigan, the lower courts in these cases have divided sharply, so it is only a matter of time before the none-too-hospitable Supreme Court takes up the issue. The main point of disagreement concerns whether diversity is a sufficiently “compelling interest” to justify race-conscious admissions. There is a strong case for diversity-based affirmative action. But another justification, not generally pressed by the universities, offers a more cogent and morally persuasive rationale for affirmative action: society’s interest in integration itself.
Since 1978 affirmative action in higher education has rested on the slimmest of reeds–a lone opinion from a Justice who could not attract a single other Justice to his views. In Board of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, a divided Supreme Court struck down a medical school admissions program that set aside a predetermined number of seats for minority applicants. Four Justices deemed any consideration of race illegal under a federal statute that prohibits discrimination by entities receiving federal funds, while another four concluded that the program was a valid response to broad societal discrimination.
The decisive opinion in the Bakke case was that of Justice Lewis Powell. He voted to invalidate the University of California’s program, but he also stated that racial preferences are sometimes permissible, citing with approval Harvard’s affirmative action program, in which, in the name of diversity, race was considered as one “plus factor” among many, and all applicants competed for all openings. Harvard’s program was not even at issue in the case, but Justice Powell’s views about it have guided universities ever since.
Subsequent Supreme Court opinions have appeared to diverge from Justice Powell’s analysis. For example, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a critical swing vote, explicitly rejected diversity as a justification for an FCC affirmative action program, stating: “Modern equal protection has recognized only one [compelling state] interest: remedying the effects of racial discrimination.” The FCC’s interest in broadcast diversity, she reasoned, was “simply too amorphous, too insubstantial, and too unrelated to any legitimate basis for employing racial classifications.” Her opinion was in dissent, but would probably garner five votes today. In other opinions, however, Justice O’Connor has cited Justice Powell’s Bakke opinion with apparent approval.
One thing is certain: The argument for diversity finds virtually universal acceptance in academe. More than 360 higher education institutions signed on to briefs defending the University of Michigan’s affirmative action program. And for good reason: In our increasingly diverse society, the ability to communicate and understand across racial lines is an essential part of citizenship, and teaching that skill requires a diverse setting. Not considering race in the diversity mix would effectively penalize minorities by denying them benefits that Iowans, violinists, potential donors’ children and synchronized swimmers receive.
The usual response is that the Fourteenth Amendment treats racial classifications differently. But the equal protection clause does not prohibit all consideration of race. In its recent voting rights cases, for example, the Court held that race may be considered as one factor among many in redistricting, as long as it is not the “predominant motive.” The redistricting process necessarily considers all sorts of factors as proxies for likely political allegiances, and adding race to the mix does not raise the same concerns as other kinds of race-conscious decision-making. Similarly, the search for diversity necessarily considers many factors as proxies for intellectual and cultural diversity, and race should be permissible as one among many.
Ultimately, however, integration itself may be a stronger justification for affirmative action than diversity. An integrated student body undoubtedly adds to diversity. But so does admitting violinists, and surely there is a stronger argument for admitting African-Americans than violinists. Higher education is one of the few arenas in modern life where racial integration remains a realistic possibility. Despite the demise of Jim Crow, most of us continue to live, work, socialize and worship in effectively segregated settings. College student bodies, by contrast, can be integrated because they are consciously selected and are not predetermined by geography or class. Integration in higher education in turn teaches us that integrated communities are possible, and that living in such communities can break down the deep barriers that continue to divide the races. At the same time, because a college degree is essential to professional success, integration in higher education is necessary to any measure of integration beyond.
The Court and the country have failed to live up to the promise of Brown v. Board of Education. The last thing we should do is turn the Constitution into a barrier to one of the last remaining arenas of true integration in America.