ACLU History: Beyond Brown v. Board of Education: Continuing the Battle for Equal Educational Opportunities

Document Date: September 1, 2010

Because the end of segregated schools did not mean an end to unequal treatment for blacks in education, the ACLU endorsed affirmative action: the use of employment and admissions strategies to remedy years of discrimination.

The first major legal challenge to affirmative action in the Supreme Court came in the 1976 case, Bakke v. Regents of California, in which a white man sued over his unsuccessful application to medical school, claiming ‘reverse discrimination’ because he was more qualified than some black applicants. The Justices upheld affirmative action, ruling that while ‘racial and ethnic distinctions of any sort are inherently suspect,’ a university could take race into account under appropriate circumstances.

The issue returned to the Supreme Court several decades later in a set of cases challenging the affirmative action admissions practices of the University of Michigan’s law school and undergraduate programs, respectively. The two cases were filed in 1997 by white plaintiffs who alleged that the university’s consideration of race in admissions violated their constitutional right to equal protection of the laws. The ACLU, the NAACP, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and its allies, intervened in the undergraduate case on behalf of African-American and Latino applicants. Similar local groups intervened in the law school case. In 2003, the Supreme Court held that the Constitution supported ‘the law school’s narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.’

The ruling affirmed the importance of affirmative action in education, but affirmative action policies have continued to garner much criticism, and several states have banned the use of affirmative action in educational and other spheres. The ACLU actively supports the continued use of affirmative action policies to secure racially diverse student bodies and counteract the effects of past and present discrimination.


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