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US court to rule on affirmative action

Top US court considers whether universities should assess race and gender when selecting students.
Last modified: 10 Oct 2012 22:10

On Wednesday, the US Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether to eliminate affirmative action, the practice of considering race and gender in selection, at colleges and universities.

A white student has brought this case before America's highest court because says she was discriminated against when a school she applied to turned her down, while admitting minority students with fewer qualifications.

The issue of affirmative action is one of America’s most divisive social issues.

Depending on how the court rules in the spring of 2013, it could have major implications for the way America's top universities admit students.

A policy intended to overcome racial injustice in education could be on its way out.

James Hamilton, an Al Jazeera producer, and I covered this story for Al Jazeera, and decided to film just outside of Washington, DC, on the campus of the University of Maryland.

We chose a day when we knew students and alumni would be in high spirits: one of the college's football games.

College football and its pre-game festivities [known as tailgating] are an autumn tradition in the US.

Diversity no accident

At the University of Maryland, a diverse group of students and alumni always turn out for their team. In fact, diversity at the University of Maryland is no accident: it has been carefully crafted through affirmative-action policies.

The college makes no secret of the fact that race and gender are part of the measures used to admit students to the school.

It’s a policy former student, and now physician, Colletta Claggett supports. She says she was admitted into medical school in part, because of affirmative action.

Still, she says, once in, she was expected to compete and perform like any other student.

She says that as an African American, her upbringing helped enrich the classroom experience. Of 110 medical students, just eight were people of colour.

"Diversity of races adds to the college experience. I think the college experience is not all about the books," Claggett told Al Jazeera.

That's a view echoed by the US Supreme Court.

In 2003, in a landmark case (Grutter v Bollinger), the supreme court upheld the affirmative action admissions policy of the University of Michigan Law School.

In writing for the majority, now retired Justice, Sandra Day O’Conner, wrote that US colleges and universities had a compelling interest to promote diversity and that affirmative action was justified.

It was a ruling that was made almost a decade ago, when the supreme court was dominated by liberal-thinking judges, appointed by Democratic presidents.

That is not the case today.

Conservative judges

The country's highest court is now comprised of more conservative judges following two appointments by George Bush, President Barack Obama's immediate predecessor.

Student Abigail Fisher is hoping that will work in her favour and the court will overturn its previous affirmative action ruling.

Fisher is suing the University of Texas. She says her civil rights were violated when, in 2008, the college turned down her application but admitted minority students with lower grades.

Speaking through her lawyer in a videotaped interview released to Al Jazeera, Fisher says that from the time she was a little girl, she was taught that discrimination of any kind was wrong.

"For an institution of higher learning to act this way makes no sense to me", she said.

If the court rules to end affirmative action,  it could also open the door to eliminating other controversial admission practices, like "legacy preferences", when the children of wealthy alumni are given special preference to attend some of America's top schools.

Richard Kahlenberg of The Century Foundation in Washington DC says this could be good for eliminating inequality in education. 

He says it may begin to address some of the income inequality that still exists, even with affirmative-action policies in place.

'Deep inequalities'

Currently, Kahlenberg says,  white students as well as students of colour from economically disadvantaged families fare badly under American college admission policies.

According to Kahlenberg, the "conservative supreme court striking down the use of race could give us something far more progressive which is an affirmative action that deals with deep inequalities based on economic status in this country and also puts an end to legacy preferences in college admissions".

Still, it is that age-old practice of extending placement in US universities to predominantly white, privileged students that underscores for so many black Americans why affirmative action based on ethnicity is still necessary at US colleges.

Back at the University of Maryland football game, Glen Creech, a former student, told us that too many Americans, "forget how it was [when African Americans were not afforded the same equal rights as white Americans] and there are still some lingering tensions you know … disenfranchisement".

Creech's view is just one of the many arguments the supreme court will consider this term, as America struggles to determine how best to overcome racial injustice in higher education.