On June 28, 1978—34 years ago today—a split Supreme Court ruled 5-to-4 that although affirmative action admissions policies were often constitutional, the University of California Medical School at Davis had violated the Fourteenth Amendment when it denied admission to a white man simply because 16 of the 100 seats were reserved for non-white students.
Allan Bakke, a white man, had twice sought admission to the medical school, and had been rejected both times. His college GPA and test scores exceeded those of any of the 16 minority students admitted; however, the University’s affirmative action program automatically set aside each of those 16 seats for non-white students.
The case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court, where Bakke contended that the University had violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause by refusing him admission solely on the basis of his race.
The Supreme Court found 5-to-4 in favor of Bakke; however, the ruling was not clear-cut. Four of the justices contended that the racial quota system was a violation of civil rights; four others argued that it was constitutionally permissible. Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr., was torn. He contended that the use of race was valid as one of several admissions criteria, but ultimately broke the tie in favor of Bakke, arguing that the University’s rigid use of this system was unconstitutional.
In his opinion, with which four other justices concurred, Powell wrote:
. . . it is evident that the Davis special admission program involves the use of an explicit racial classification never before countenanced by this Court. It tells applicants who are not Negro, Asian, or Chicano that they are totally excluded from a specific percentage of the seats in an entering class. No matter how strong their qualifications, quantitative and extracurricular, including their own potential for contribution to educational diversity, they are never afforded the chance to compete with applicants from the preferred groups for the special admissions seats. At the same time the preferred applicants have the opportunity to compete for every seat in the class.
The split decision sent mixed messages. It upheld affirmative action systems as constitutional in some cases; however, it also placed limitations on the use of such policies, defining as unconstitutional the rigid application of racial quotas to the extent that said quotas went beyond ensuring diversity to infringe upon the rights of another group of students.
The validity and present-day necessity of affirmative action programs is still a topic of contention, as is the concept of reverse discrimination. Lawyers, judges, school officials, and the general public remain torn on the extent to which affirmative action helps and hinders—and this is a topic unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.
To read the full text of Powell’s opinion, click here.
To listen to the oral argument and the opinion announcement, click here.
For more information, and to view photos and video footage, click here.
To learn more, check out Howard Ball’s The Bakke Case: Race, Education, and Affirmative Action (University Press of Kansas, 2000).
For more on racial diversity in California, check out Mark Brilliant’s The Color of America Has Changed: How Racial Diversity Shaped Civil Rights Reform in California, 1941-1978 (Oxford University Press, 2010).
Numerous books discuss affirmative action, including Terry Anderson’s The Pursuit of Fairness: A History of Affirmative Action (Oxford University Press, 2005) and George Curry’s The Affirmative Action Debate (Basic Books, 1996).