Debating Diversity

The Supreme Court Argues Affirmative Action And Redistricting

The Supreme Court Argues Affirmative Action And Redistricting

Amidst national conversation about policies—from immigration reform to the refugee entry process—that could impact the diversity of our nation as a whole, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on three cases this week that could impact the diversity of some of our most important institutions. Yesterday, the Supreme Court held oral arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas, a case that could potentially end affirmative action in public university admissions. The day before, the Court heard two cases about redistricting, on eof which could lead to an even whiter, less diverse pool of elected officials than we already have. Here’s what you need to know about these cases:

Affirmative Action
Affirmative action has had its fair share of court battles—this is actually the second time the Court has heard Fisher v. University of Texas. The case was brought by Abigail Fisher, a white student who believes the University of Texas denied her admission in 2008 because of her race. And in its 2013 Fisher decision, the Court avoided taking a strong stance on the issue and asked the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to reexamine the case. The Fifth Circuit ruled again in favor of the University of Texas’ affirmative action policy, bringing the case back to the Supreme Court this session.

In yesterday’s argument Justice Scalia gave a particularly disappointing and shocking argument against affirmative action: “Most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas. They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re begin pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them,” he said. Scalia also argued that students of color are being “pushed into schools that are too advanced for them” because of affirmative action policies.

Justice Scalia’s comments don’t dignify a response. It should be no argument that diversity in the classroom benefits all students, as well as their communities, the workforce, and the country as a whole. This case could spell the end of all affirmative action policies at public colleges and universities across the country, something the conservative Roberts court has long been expected to do, or it could be sent back to a lower court once again.

The other major issue on the Supreme Court’s schedule this week was redistricting. On Tuesday, the court heard two cases about redistricting that have the potential to throw the redistricting process of many states into chaos and change the racial and ethnic balance of congressional delegations.

Under the Fourteenth Amendment, House seats are allocated based on the total population, not just eligible voters. That means children, non-citizens, disenfranchised former offenders, and others still count in determining the number of representatives each state gets in Congress. This practice will not change, no matter what happens in Evenwel v. Abbot.

The plaintiffs in Evenwel, however, ask the Court to change the way district lines are drawn within a state. If they prevail, non-voters will no longer count when states draw these lines. In states such as Texas, where there is are large non-citizen Latino communities, the Evenwel plaintiffs’ rule will effectively transfer power away from these Latino communities and toward white voters. In many states, it could also turn redistricting into a logistical nightmare, because states will have to redraw their district lines unless children who are too young to vote are evenly distributed throughout the state.

This rule cuts against the text of the Fourteenth Amendment, and it is hard to square with American history. As Justice Ginsberg put the implications of this shift into perspective in yesterday’s arguments when she asked whether it was wrong for women, before they could vote, to be counted for the purposes of drawing districts given that “they were not eligible voters.”

This case is the godchild of Edward Blum, a conservative activist who has also been behind other racially-charged challenges to affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act. Aside from the racial implications, this case would also cause logistical nightmares for anyone in charge of redrawing legislative maps.

BOTTOM LINE: While presidential candidates are getting a lot more attention, they are not the only ones currently debating policies that could have a significant impact on access to opportunity in the United States. The Supreme Court is gearing up for another year of decisions that could have significant ramifications on the civil rights and representation of Americans. Diversity matters; we hope that the highest court will agree.

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