When she applied to attend the University of Michigan Law School,
Barbara Grutter was anything but a typical applicant.
As a mother of two in her 40s running her own healthcare
consulting business, she had considerably more life experience than
the average 22-year-old. In addition, there was a respectable 3.8
undergraduate grade-point average and a score of 161 on the law-
school aptitude test, placing her in the 86th percentile nationally.
But unknown to Ms. Grutter, she possessed one trait that would
significantly undercut her candidacy: the color of her skin.
As one of the most selective law schools in the nation, the
University of Michigan maintains an affirmative-action plan that
seeks to grant admission each year to a "critical mass" of qualified
minority students. To reach that critical mass, the university must
reject a large number of white students, like Grutter, even though
they have higher grades and test scores than many of the minorities
selected to attend.
Tuesday, the US Supreme Court takes up one of the most important
constitutional law debates of this generation. The justices must
decide whether the nation's most prestigious and selective
universities may use race as a deciding factor in whom to admit and
whom to reject.
Regardless of which side wins, the court's decision will have a
profound impact on efforts to remedy the long legacy of
discrimination against African-Americans and other minorities in the
US. "The stakes couldn't be higher," says Theodore Shaw of the NAACP
Legal Defense and Educational Fund in New York.
Three key questions
The legal debate over affirmative action revolves around three
key questions: Does the Constitution demand a colorblind approach in
all matters of race? Or, is the constitutional guarantee of equal
protection flexible enough to permit the use of race in an effort to
uplift a particular segment of society? If so, at what point do
preferences cross the line and become illegal discrimination?
The justices are believed to be as deeply divided on these
questions as the nation itself. The outcome may hinge on the
perspective of a single, tie-breaking justice, Sandra Day O'Connor.
Scores of friend-of-the-court briefs have been filed on both
sides, presenting a wide range of passionate arguments. "If
traditionally white institutions of higher education are not allowed
the flexibility to look beyond narrow quantitative measures of
college readiness and consider race, much of the progress of African
Americans in higher education will be lost," says Drew Days III, in
a brief on behalf of the United Negro College Fund.
Ward Connerly, a nationally recognized opponent of affirmative
action, offers a different view: "Was it the purpose of the 'civil
rights' movement to end the morally abhorrent practice of
discriminating AGAINST black people so that we could discriminate in
FAVOR of them?"
In agreeing to decide the issue, the high court is actually
hearing two cases back to back. First will be Grutter's case against
the law school. Next, the justices will hear arguments in a similar
case filed by two white undergraduate University of Michigan