An Examination of the Legal Debate regarding Race-Based Education Policies from 1849 to 1964

Article excerpt


In June 2007, the United States Supreme Court rendered its most recent decision on the constitutionality of race-based education policies. The Court decided that race-based student assignment policies implemented in two school districts to ensure racially integrated schools violated the United States Constitution. Since the implementation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the creation of affirmative action policies, the legal and political debate regarding race-based policies has been constant and explosive; there does not seem to be an end in sight. In this first decade of the 21st century, the debate is rooted in age-old legal cases and legislation. The United States' legal history helped to shape current educational policies as well as societal attitudes which consider race in the academic admissions process. This examination of federal race-based legal cases and legislation addressing the period from the mid-1800s through the implementation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 reveals the courts' role in perpetuating the notion of White privilege and legally endorsing discrimination and segregation in education for more than a hundred years. The examination also demonstrates how legal cases and legislation necessitated race-conscious affirmative action policies.


Once again the United States Supreme Court addressed the constitutionality of race-based policies in an educational setting in June 2007 (Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 ,et al.; Crystal D. Meredith, Custodial Parent and Next Friend of Joshua Ryan McDonald v. Jefferson County Board of Education, et al., 2007). It ruled that two school districts' policies of race-based student assignment to schools to ensure racial integration were in violation of the United States Constitution. The Court has been relatively quiet on this issue since the University of Mchigan decisions in Gratz v. Bollinger (2003) and Grutier v. Bollinger (2003). In Gratz (2003), the Supreme Court found that the University of Mchigan's undergraduate freshman admissions policy was not narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling state interest in diversity because underrepresented minorities were automatically assigned points during the admissions process. Therefore, the undergraduate admissions policy was unconstitutional (Gratz v. Bollinger, 2003). On the other hand, in Grutier the Supreme Court held that the University of Mchigan Law School had a compelling state interest in attaining a diverse student body, and the admissions policy's use of race was narrowly tailored to further that interest. The Law School's policy of seeking to enroll a critical mass of minority students did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment or Title VI of the Civil Rights Act since it engaged in a highly individualized, holistic review of each applicant's file (Grutier v. Bollinger, 2003). The divergent decisions delivered in these cases made the already divisive topic of race-based affirmative policies even more perplexing and controversial for American citizens and policymakers. The fact that Justice O'Connor, who wrote the Grutter opinion, urged that all race-conscious admissions policies have a logical end point of preferably 25 years or fewer meant that the legal debate would likely live on until race-based policies were eliminated completely (Grutter v. Bollinger, 2003).

In addition to the Mchigan legal cases, the debate surrounding race-based policies in education was just as strong in the state legislatures and state executive offices at the conclusion of the 20th century as it was on a federal level. For instance, several states in the union led the anti-affirmative action cause by either completely banning or severely limiting the use of any race-conscious policies. Voters in California, Washington, and Mchigan abolished affirmative action policies through state referenda (California Civil Rights Initiative, Proposition 209, 1996; Mchigan Civil Rights Initiative, Proposition 2, 2007; Washington State Civil Rights Initiative 200, 1998). …


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