Supreme Court Hears Challenge to Race-Based Admissions at University of Texas

9 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘One person, one vote’ is simply the best system.

The plaintiff, Abigail Fisher, contends she was rejected by the University of Texas’ flagship campus in Austin because Hispanic and black students were admitted, instead of her, on the basis of race rather than grades. On Tuesday a lawyer for two Texas residents asked the Supreme Court to rule that the Constitution’s guarantee of “one person, one vote” in the drawing of state legislative districts actually means “one eligible voter, one vote” — a holding that would end the usual practice of basing representation on total population, including children and noncitizens.Abigail Fisher has been out of college since 2012, but the justices’ renewed interest in her case is a sign that the court’s conservative majority is poised to cut back, or even end, affirmative action in higher education.In 1978 and in 2003 the Court ruled definitively that colleges and universities could consider race and ethnicity as one of many factors in admissions, as long as there are no quotas.

By 2013, though, the composition of the Court had changed and grown more conservative, and the issue was back in a case from Texas—a case that eventually fizzled that year but is back again now. Affirmative action is largely unsupported by conservatives, but the majority of Americans do support it, according to recent research that underscores how politicized the issue is.

Most students are admitted to the university through a plan that guarantees slots to Texans who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school classes. A 2014 Pew Research survey found that roughly two-thirds of Americans view programs “designed to increase the number of black and minority students on college campuses” as a “good thing,” according to the research firm.

Equally ominous, it would disadvantage areas, such as Southern California, where many residents are not yet citizens or voters but still use the roads, schools and other public services. The Supreme Court’s decision to revisit the case this term struck many supporters of affirmative action as an ominous sign, one suggesting that a 12-year-old societal compromise was in peril. Fisher invokes the promise of equal protection contained in the 14th Amendment, reminding us that judging people by their ancestry, rather than by their merits, risks demeaning their dignity. Abbott, supported by a conservative organization known as the Project on Fair Representation, claim to have precedent on their side, notably a 1964 ruling in which the court held that malapportioned districts unconstitutionally “diluted” the votes of some citizens in relation to those of others. The affirmative action plan, however, ran into a buzz saw in the lower courts, which ruled that the university could not consider race in any way in admissions.

But today, in many places, large numbers of noncitizens mean that districts of roughly equal population can have dramatically different percentages of eligible voters. If this state were required to draw lines to reflect only eligible voters, power would shift away from areas heavily populated by noncitizens, many of them Latino.

Some districts would expand as a result, making it harder for state legislators to address individual constituents’ problems and for residents to sway those legislators. Several states, including California and Michigan, forbid the practice, and public universities in those states have had a drop in minority admissions. Eight states prohibit the use of race in public college admissions: Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Washington. County Board of Supervisors: “The purpose of redistricting is not only to protect the voting power of citizens; a coequal goal is to ensure equal representation for equal numbers of people.” Justice Sonia Sotomayor made the same point at Tuesday’s argument: “There is a voting interest,” she said, “but there is also a representational interest.” Ideally the millions of noncitizens living in this country — legally and illegally — would obtain U.S. citizenship and along with it the right to vote.

The university flatly denied her claim, saying Fisher’s grades and test scores were simply too low to get her in, no matter what her extracurricular activities or her race. To study the effects of ethnic and racial diversity, we conducted a series of experiments in which participants competed in groups to find accurate answers to problems. The demographics of the university’s current freshman class is 22 percent Hispanic and 4.5 percent African-American, with white students comprising less than half the school’s freshmen.

In a situation much like a classroom, we started by presenting each participant individually with information and a task: to calculate accurate prices for simulated stocks. Edward Blum, who conceived this affirmative action case and handpicked Fisher as its plaintiff, says, “Fisher is about the proposition that your race should neither be used to help you nor harm you in your life’s endeavors.” But in the meantime, they rely on — and finance with the sales taxes and other levies that noncitizens pay — public services and many of their children attend public schools. First, we collected individual answers, and then (to see how committed participants were to their answers), we let them buy and sell those stocks to the others, using real money.

Think of yourself in similar situations: Interacting with others can bring new ideas into view, but it can also cause you to adopt popular but wrong ones. The basic question in the case is whether the university was entitled to supplement its race-neutral Top 10 program with a race-conscious “holistic” one.

So if you think that something is worth $100, but others are bidding $120 for it, you may defer to their judgment and up the ante (perhaps contributing to a price bubble) or you might dismiss them and stand your ground. Gershengorn told the justices, “It would be a very odd interpretation to say that the Constitution forbids for state legislative redistricting what it requires for congressional redistricting.” In this case, the simplest system is also the fairest. The lawyers and strategists who have financed and promoted the Fisher case for seven years—well after she graduated from another school—have declined interview requests. We assigned each participant to a group that was either homogeneous or diverse (meaning that it included at least one participant of another ethnicity or race). By a 7-to-1 vote (Justice Elena Kagan has recused herself because she worked on the case as United States solicitor general), the court returned the case to a federal appeals court, instructing it to take a more careful look at the Texas program.

Justice Sotomayor may have less to work with this time, as it appears that she used at least parts of her draft in a published dissent from the court’s 2014 decision upholding Michigan’s ban on affirmative action. His views on when the government can take account of race are not always easy to pin down, but he has never voted to uphold an affirmative action program.

We wanted to understand whether the benefits of diversity stem, as the common thinking has it, from some special perspectives or skills of minorities. Imagine how much students might be getting wrong, how much they are conforming to comfortable ideas and ultimately how much they could be underperforming because of this. To step back from the goal of diverse classrooms would deprive all students, regardless of their racial or ethnic background, of the opportunity to benefit from the improved cognitive performance that diversity promotes.

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