June 28, 1978 – The U.S. Supreme Court Decides Regents of the Univ. of Cal. v. Bakke

On this day in history, the U.S. Supreme Court in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 upheld affirmative action, allowing race to be one of several factors in college admission policy. However, the court found that specific quotas, such as the 16 out of 100 seats set aside for minority students by the University of California, Davis School of Medicine, were impermissible.

Allan Bakke, a white applicant, was twice denied admission to the medical school even though his test scores were “significantly higher” than those of some minority applicants recently admitted.

Bakke first sued the University of California in a state court, alleging that the medical school’s admission policy violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. The California Supreme Court agreed, finding that the quota system explicitly discriminated against racial groups and holding that “no applicant may be rejected because of his race, in favor of another who is less qualified, as measured by standards applied without regard to race.” The medical school, ordered to shut down its quota system, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reviewed the case in 1978.

In a 5-4 decision written by Justice Lewis Franklin Powell, the Court ruled that a state may constitutionally consider race as a factor in its university admissions to promote educational diversity, but only if considered alongside other factors and on a case-by-case basis.

Portrait of Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr.

Portrait of Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr.

California’s use of racial quotas in this case, however, did not meet those requirements because of the fact that it reserved 16 out of 100 spots solely for consideration of race. The Court found that the fact that blacks have historically had been discriminated against more than whites was irrelevant to this case, because racial quota systems, whether applied against whites or blacks, are always “odious to a free people whose institutions are founded upon the doctrine of equality.” Indeed, because the school’s quota was designed to redress past discrimination against racial minorities, the Court stated, it was intended to prefer “one group for no other reason other than race or ethnic origin.” Thus, the Court ruled that the school’s quota system “must be rejected … as racially invalid” under the Equal Protection Clause.

Justice Thurgood Marshall felt that affirmative action was important and more than justified. In a separate opinion, he wrote:

…today’s judgment ignores the fact that, for several hundred years, Negroes have been discriminated against not as individuals, but rather solely because of the color of their skins. It is unnecessary in 20th-century America to have individual Negroes demonstrate that they have been victims of racial discrimination; the racism of our society has been so pervasive that none, regardless of wealth or position, has managed to escape its impact. The experience of Negroes in America has been different in kind, not just in degree, from that of other ethnic groups. It is not merely the history of slavery alone, but also that a whole people were marked as inferior by the law. And that mark has endured. The dream of America as the great melting pot has not been realized for the Negro; because of his skin color, he never even made it into the pot. [my emphasis]”

He further opined:

In light of the sorry history of discrimination and its devastating impact on the lives of Negroes, bringing the Negro into the mainstream of American life should be a state interest of the highest order. To fail to do so is to ensure that America will forever remain a divided society.

It is because of a legacy of unequal treatment that we now must permit the institutions of this society to give consideration to race in making decisions about who will hold the positions of influence, affluence, and prestige in America. For far too long, the doors to those positions have been shut to Negroes. If we are ever to become a fully integrated society, one in which the color of a person’s skin will not determine the opportunities available to him or her, we must be willing to take steps to open those doors. I do not believe that anyone can truly look into America’s past and still find that a remedy for the effects of that past is impermissible.”

Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall

Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall

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