The US Supreme Court on affirmative action: a hindrance to opportunities

Sonia Sotomayor

“With my academic achievement in high school I was accepted rather readily at Princeton and equally as fast at Yale, but my test scores were not comparable to that of my classmates. And that’s been shown by statistics, there are reasons for that – there are cultural biases built into testing, and that was one of the motivations for the concept of affirmative action to try to balance out those effects.”

– United States Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor

The definition of affirmative action states that it is the practice of improving the educational and job opportunities of members of groups that have not been treated fairly in the past because of their race, sex or religion. It is a policy in which an individual’s color, sex, race, religion or national origin are taken into account by the government, businesses or educational institutions in order to augment the opportunities provided to an under-represented part of society. It is often considered a means to counter historical discrimination against a particular group in society.

In a 6-2 decision this past week, the Justices of the United States Supreme Court have upheld the state of Michigan’s ban on affirmative action, overturning a lower court decision and banning racial preference in university admissions.

What is key to understand is that the Supreme Court is not declaring it unconstitutional for educational institutions to apply affirmative action. It is simply giving individual states their own right to choose and decide whether or not to apply this principle.

Having said that, affirmative action has been providing a multitude of benefits to American society for years. It has provided a plethora of educational and professional opportunities to members of minority groups, who would perhaps never have achieved what they have without this enormous help from society and the legal system.

Many see this as an unfair practice in which an individual is given an opportunity or an upper hand based entirely on his or her color, race or sex, rather than on individual achievements. However, it would not be entirely unfair to say that this point of view could be considered naïve. Countless numbers of people from minority groups need to have confidence placed in them, to be believed in, and to be given a chance. Creating this opportunities has allowed many to rise well above what may have been the case had there been no affirmative action in place.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor made a fiery, emotional statement after this decision was delivered, no doubt based on her own experiences. Sotomayor grew up in a modest, underprivileged background, eventually graduating summa cum laude from Princeton University and receiving her law degree from Yale University. By her own admission, “affirmative action opened doors in my life.”

Those who understand the benefits of affirmative action would without hesitation understand Sotomayor’s point of view when she states that:

“Race matters. Race matters in part because of the long history of racial minorities’ being denied access to the political process. Race matters to a young man’s view of society when he spends his teenage years watching others tense up as he passes, no matter what neighborhood he grew up. Race matters to a young woman’s sense of self when she states her home town, and then is pressed, ‘No, where are you really from?’ The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination. 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.”

Very powerful words from someone who has experienced the doors that can be opened by affirmative action.

This is the story of one woman who, thanks to her own intelligence and achievements and the benefits of affirmative action, rose to the position of United States Supreme Court Justice. How many countless others have had similar experiences is anyone’s guess. However,what is a certainty is that the less affirmative action is applied, the more underprivileged individuals and groups will risk remaining so… underprivileged. Those are not the principles on which the United States was founded.

by Sabria Chowdhury Balland

Sabria Chowdhury Balland is a Professor of English and French. She is also a columnist for US and European political and legal issues.

Twitter: @SabriaBalland

Photograph by Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States, Steve Petteway source [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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