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.