The issue of reverse discrimination first reached the nation’s highest court in the 1970s, when a student with good grades named Allan Bakke accused a University of California medical school of twice denying him admission because he was white.
Strict racial quotas were unconstitutional, the court said–affirmative action was not. But that ruling far from decided what many considered the big-picture issue: Does protecting minorities discriminate against the majority?
More than 30 years, and scores of lawsuits later, the question remains unanswered. Meanwhile, more Americans came to believe that affirmation action is no longer necessary, and that instead of leveling the playfield for minorities, it unfairly punishes whites.
Last week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case filed by white firefighters who claimed they were denied promotion because of the color of their skin.
“The laws that Congress wrote are clear–everyone is protected from racial discrimination,” said Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank that advocates eliminating race and ethnic considerations. “Not just blacks, but whites. Not just Latinos, but whites.”
States have faced legal battles
Those who favor affirmative action say race divisions still exist in this country, 40 years after the civil rights movement.
Several states have recently faced legal battles waged by whites claiming they were unfairly treated in favor of protecting and promoting blacks and Hispanics.
Earlier this month in South Carolina, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued a historically black college on behalf of three white faculty members who complained they were forced from or denied jobs because of their race.
Simultaneously, federal officials said they had reached a settlement agreement, with Benedict College paying $55,000 to each instructor, including an art teacher who said she was denied promotion in favor of a black professor. The institution denied the accusations.
Last week, a white woman in Texas filed a federal lawsuit against an assisted-living center, contending she was discriminated against and harassed by Hispanics because she didn’t speak Spanish.
And in Florida, two transportation companies sued Broward County over efforts to steer public contracts to minority-owned businesses. The firms, which had provided car service for the handicapped and the elderly, claimed they were paid lower fees than other contractors because they didn’t comply with affirmative action requirements.
Outlawing bias toward race
Affirmative action–policies designed to promote and protect groups previously and currently denied equal standing–originated with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Broadly speaking, it outlaws bias toward race, creed, color or national origin in school admissions, voting rights, employment and government contracting.
Sometimes those policies have set aside jobs, college admissions and government contracts for minority applicants, students and firms.
“Quotas do not end discrimination. They are discrimination,” Clegg said. “The law makes clear that race, ethnicity and sex are not to be part of who gets a government contract or who gets into a university or where someone goes to school.”
‘Stop discriminating on the basis of race’
Twenty years later, a more conservative court declared that public school systems cannot try to achieve or maintain integration based on explicit race rules. In a 5-to-4 opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” At issue in the case were programs in Seattle and Louisville, Ky., that tried to maintain racial diversity by limiting transfers and admissions.