End of Affirmative Action

The injustices of the 2000 election were compounded by decisions on the fate of affirmative action in higher education. In June 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed two important lawsuits involving affirmative action programs at the University of Michigan. Bush anticipated that the Supreme Court, now packed with Republican appointments, would finally outlaw race-sensitive admissions policies. The president was only partially right. Affirmative action programs had been “on trial” since their inception. The landmark 1978 Bakke decision, a case in which a white student argued that he had not been admitted to medical school as a result of racial quotas, had upheld the constitutionality of affirmative action programs, while outlawing the use of any sort of quota system. Race would be only one of many factors in determining one’s admission into schools. Thus by 2003, the issues were overheating. In Gratz v. Bollinger, the Court overturned one affirmative action program at the University of Michigan. But in the more important case, Grutter v. Bollinger, it upheld the university’s race-sensitive admission program by a narrow 5 to 4 margin. The Supreme Court’s majority declared that there was indeed a compelling state interest in enhancing racial and ethnic “diversity” in higher education. The Court stated that such programs could not be based on strict racial quotas; however, “race” could be considered as one of among many other factors, such as family income, in the selection of students. It also stated that universities should, in the future, consider potential students “as individuals” and not reject or admit them through any programs that were specifically designed to consider exclusively racial and ethnic categories. The majority of liberal and civil rights groups celebrated Grutter v. Bollinger as a victory for affirmative action. As subsequent events would prove, their interpretation of the ruling was sadly mistaken.

By the fall, 2003, hundreds of U.S. colleges and universities had interpreted Grutter to mean that they had to eliminate or at least radically revise their minority-oriented programs for student recruitment and admissions. They accepted the concept that “color-blind” programs that benefited lower income students regardless of their race would still preserve minority access. “Race” was now relegated to a secondary consideration; any program, which had been expressly designed to identify blacks, Latinos and American Indians, had to be curtailed or eliminated. As a result, hundreds of minority offices and programs disappeared almost overnight. The result at many campuses was a drop in black enrollments. At the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, for instance, in 2002 the freshman class was 8.5 percent black and 5.9 percent Hispanic. Two years later, its matriculating first year undergraduate class contained 5.8 percent black and 4.4 percent Latino students. Educators and journalists began wondering “Who really won?” the Grutter v. Bollinger decision.

The devastating declines of black enrollments in universities and professional schools were occurring at a moment when American public schools were becoming more heavily segregated by both race and class. In 2004, Rodney Paige, Bush’s Secretary of Education, warned, “We face an emerging de facto apartheid in our schools, a contemporary crisis that is similar, perhaps identical, to the situation in the 1950s South.” On the fiftieth anniversary of the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision, May 17, 2004, educators and scholars across the country voiced concerns about the future of racial integration at all levels of education. Others saw the Brown decision’s fiftieth anniversary as an opportunity to reflect about the intense class polarization within the national African-American community that insulated much of the black elite from the worst public schools of poorer blacks.

Related Resources

Excerpt from Gratz v. Bollinger.
Gratz v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 244 (2003).