DEAN WILLIAM CARTER (Photo by J.L. Martello)
Many minority students in higher education have had to endure the question, “Are you here because of affirmative action?” William Carter, a University of Pittsburgh professor and Dean of the School of Law, was one of them.
Affirmative action was created in the 1960s to address persistent discrimination against African-Americans and to level the playing field after the Civil Rights Act was passed to end the Jim Crow era, and continues to be used to address inequity today. However, recent decisions by the United States Supreme Court indicate affirmative action and the question asked of Carter and minority students throughout the country could soon be eliminated.
“What’s going on there is the court believes part of its role is maintaining social cohesion,” Carter said at a lecture for the School of Social Work’s Center on Race and Social Problems. “So I believe what the court is doing is reinforcing its world view. And that world is a post racial society.”
In his lecture, as part of the Reed Smith Spring 2013 Speaker Series on Jan. 30, Carter provided context for Fisher vs. University of Texas, an affirmative action case challenging admission policies at the University of Texas at Austin. Plaintiff Abigail Fisher, who is White, is alleging racial discrimination because she was denied acceptance to the university.
The current case is tied to the 2003 landmark case Grutter v. Bollinger in which the Supreme Court upheld the admissions policy of the University of Michigan Law School. While college admissions policies using quota systems have been eliminated, Grutter v. Bollinger was upheld because the university was using race as one of many factors in considering applicants.
The same is true at the University of Texas where the top 10 percent of applicants are accepted regardless of race. While approximately 80 percent of applicants are admitted through this method, the remaining students are chosen based on talents, leadership qualities and family circumstances as well as race.
Carter believes Fisher v. University of Texas will result in a five to three vote striking down Texas’ program. This mirrors a growing trend opposing affirmative action which included the 2012 decisions in Oklahoma and New Hampshire to end affirmative action in college admissions and employment.
“This is a combination of themes that some scholars have termed post racialness,” Carter said. “That is, we have entered a post racial society where these measures are unnecessary because we have reached equity and counter productive because they create division.”
Carter listed statistics illustrating a non-post racial society. These included the poverty rate for people of color being higher than that of Whites and Black families earning two-thirds less than White families.
However, opponents of affirmative action in higher education admissions, like Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas, use the “mismatch theory” to demonstrate that these programs put minority students at a disadvantage. They believe accepting students to school where they are unprepared to thrive will hurt them in the long run.
“Part of the assumption is that those coming in are perpetually out classed and I don’t know if that’s the case,” Carter said. “But if all we do is get them here so we have more colorful faces in the class, we have failed them.”
Carter’s expertise on the issue of affirmative action comes from his focus on constitutional law, civil rights, international human rights, and civil litigation.