Affirmative Action Supreme Court Cases

Instructor: David White
Affirmative action has come before the US Supreme Court on a number of occasions. Through this lesson, you will explore some of the landmark cases that have shaped affirmative action, including one that could bring dramatic changes to future policies.

Understanding Affirmative Action

From the moment the concept was introduced in the mid-20th century, affirmative action programs have been an important and controversial subject in American society. In simple terms, affirmative action programs are those that give preferential consideration to people or groups that have historically been marginalized or overlooked in places like colleges, employment, or other areas of public life.

Historically, affirmative action has increased diversity and offered opportunities to individuals who might otherwise be left out. For that reason, it's easy to assume that challenges to affirmative action are motivated by fear, bigotry, or racism; however, it's important to remember that US law is very complicated, and what might appear to be a discriminatory position could actually be a valid concern. Therefore, the best way to understand the nuances and consequences of affirmative action is to look at some of the landmark cases that have shaped and re-shaped affirmative action in the United States.

Affirmative Action in Employment

Requiring a business or corporation to maintain a certain number of minority employees (e.g. women and people of color) consequently means that there will be fewer positions for white men. This is one of the most common complaints from critics of affirmative action and it was at the heart of the 1979 Supreme Court case United Steel Workers of America v. Weber.

The class action suit originated from a union contract negotiated between the USWA and the Kaiser Aluminum Chemical Corporation. As a part of the contract, Kaiser agreed to implement an affirmative action program to increase opportunities and employment for applicants of color. As a result, a Kaiser employee filed a class action suit claiming that 50% of the company's promotions were being awarded to less qualified black employees over the more qualified white employees, which violated the equal protection of white employees.

Weber believed that his Title VII rights had been violated.
Title 7

Because the alleged action involved a private company, as opposed to a federal or contracted organization, the 14th amendment was not a factor. The basis of the claim, rather, was that it violated Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race. In this case, the court ruled that the affirmative action plan was entered into voluntarily and, while Weber's argument was not without merit, it had ultimately achieved the goal of Title VII, rather than violated it.

Affirmative Action in Education

Although affirmative action programs have been put into place in many areas of public life, one of the most common areas in which one might encounter it is higher education. Because college acceptance can be a very competitive process, affirmative action programs have been essential for recruiting and maintaining a racially and ethnically diverse student body. Still, given the high stakes of college applications, academic affirmative action programs have been a hotly debated issue for decades.

When University of California Medical School applicant Allan Bakke was rejected, he took his case all the way to the Supreme Court in the 1978 case of Regents of University of California v. Bakke. Bakke's lawyers claimed that despite being a fully qualified candidate, he was denied admission in order for the school to meet its minority quota, which was a violation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 14th amendment. In this case, the quota system refers to the school's special admissions program, which set aside a certain number of admissions for students of color.

Many advocates of affirmative action were angry with the decision of the Supreme Court.

Because the quota system specifically privileged students of color over white students, the court deemed that this was a violation of Bakke's Title VI and the 14th amendment rights, as it was the color of his skin that prevented his admission.

Regents of University of California v. Bakke is a landmark case because its ruling determined that admitting a person solely because of their race was unconstitutional. Despite what some might consider a negative outcome, this case illustrates the complexity of affirmative action by demonstrating how, in certain circumstances it could be used to promote the very behavior it was enacted to prohibit.

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