The conservative majority of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) on Tuesday issued a final ban on affirmative action in Michigan in response to a ruling from the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, which overturned the ballot initiative — Michigan Civil Rights Initiative — otherwise known as Proposal 2 that banned affirmative action in the state. The court basically upheld the ban in Michigan.
In 2006, the ballot question banning affirmative action passed by a margin of 58-42, noting that the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Wayne State University and any other public college or university “shall not discriminate against or grant preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education or public contracting.”
The majority opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy argued that the case challenging affirmative action was not about race admissions but, rather, a question of whether voters have the ability to ban race preferences. Concurring with Kennedy were Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Antonin Scalia, Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Stephen Breyer. Justice Elena Kagan recused herself from the case.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic on the highest court, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote a powerful dissenting opinion underscoring the history that informs minority participation in the political process and the constitutional guarantees that come with it.
“While our Constitution does not guarantee minority groups victory in the political process, it does guarantee them meaningful and equal access to that process. It guarantees that the majority may not win by stacking the political process against minority groups permanently, forcing the minority alone to surmount unique obstacles in pursuit of its goals — here, educational diversity that cannot reasonably be accomplished through race-neutral measures,” Sotomayor wrote.
“Today, by permitting a majority of the voters in Michigan to do what our Constitution forbids, the Court ends the debate over race-sensitive admissions policies in Michigan in a manner that contravenes constitutional protections long recognized in our precedents.”
Justice Sotomayor went on to argue for affirmative action by stating that “there is no conflict between this Court’s pronouncement in Grutter and the common-sense reality that race-sensitive admissions policies benefit minorities. Rather, race- sensitive admissions policies further a compelling state interest in achieving a diverse student body precisely because they increase minority enrollment, which necessarily benefits minority groups.”
Sotomayor further added, “In other words, constitutionally permissible race-sensitive admissions policies can both serve the compelling interest of obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body and inure to the benefit of racial minorities. There is nothing mutually exclusive about the two.”
The decision of the court comes at a time when the University of Michigan — where the battle for affirmative action began when Jennifer Gratz, a White female student, challenged the university’s affirmative action policies — has been meeting with the Black Student Union (BSU) this year to address concerns around diversity and what some of the students describe as a climate that wasn’t welcoming to them.
University officials and the students last week reached an agreement to address some core issues that include spending $300,000 to upgrade the Trotter Multicultural Center. The university has agreed to look at different strategies to increase Black student enrollment, which is currently at 4.4 percent.
University of Michigan Provost Martha Pollack applauded the tentative agreements the two sides reached.
“We’ve worked hard together on these topics,” Pollack said. “The students raised issues that absolutely needed to be dealt with and provided valuable insight on ways to effect change.”
Geralyn Gaines, the secretary of the Black Student Union, earlier on described the racial climate on campus as sometimes uncomfortable.
“I know that me and some of my friends refused to go to Fraternity Row where all the White frat houses are because the numerous times we’ve been there we’ve been given dirty looks by other White students, that is really unwelcoming. That has made us uncomfortable and we don’t go there anymore,” Gaines said. “We don’t feel welcomed there at all and we don’t have a place of our own to go to. There are Black fraternities but there is actually no designated house like the one they have for White students.”
Prior to the agreement that the university administration successfully reached with the students on diversity initiatives, Gaines said that’s been the result of repeated meetings her group has had with top officials at U-M as well as with several members of the Board of Regents to discuss the urgency of their crisis. Those meetings included Regents Denise Illitch, Andrea Fischer Newman and Shauna Ryder Diggs.
In an April 16 edition of the Michigan Chronicle, the University of Michigan’s outgoing president, Mary Sue Coleman, spoke about the need for diversity on campus, which will be on the plate of the incoming president Mark Schlissel.
“I don’t want any student at the University of Michigan to feel unwelcomed. I wish I could have made that better. It’s a worthy goal but I know the university will carry on to make it better,” Coleman said.
U.S. Congressman John Conyers Jr. from Detroit, the highest-ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, issued a statement in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the ban on affirmative action.
“Today’s decision continues a troubling line of recent Supreme Court decisions that are hostile towards our history of civil rights and our struggle for equality. It is unfortunate that this Court allowed Proposal 2 to overrun the intent of the Constitution’s equal protection clause: protecting disadvantaged minorities from discrimination,” Conyers said.
“The blatant unfairness of this approach was highlighted by the Sixth Circuit in their opinion striking down Proposal 2 stating that, while ‘sons and daughters of alumni’ and children of big donors are afforded those non-merit considerations in the admissions process, Proposal 2 would require a minority student to ‘convince the Michigan electorate to amend its constitution’ — an extraordinary, expensive process and the most arduous of all the possible channels for change.”
Conyers quoted Justice Sotomayor saying, ‘The Constitution does not protect racial minorities from political defeat. But neither does it give the majority free rein to erect selective barriers against racial minorities.’ She wrote ‘the political process doctrine…ensures that the majority, when it wins, does so without rigging the rules of the game to ensure its success.”
Bankole Thompson is the editor of the Michigan Chronicle. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.