The spirit of the late Heman Sweatt will be inside the Supreme Court this week when the justices consider whether the University of Texas-Austin campus that he first integrated in 1950 has carried its system of racial preferences too far.
That's the argument posed by Abigail Fisher, who contends that she was denied admission in 2008 because of her skin color: white.
Sweatt probably could relate to that. He sued the university after being blocked from admission in 1946 because he was black. Today, his descendants say, racial preferences are still needed to guarantee equal opportunities for minorities.
Both sides will be in court Wednesday when the justices take up Fisher v. University of Texas and the issue of affirmative action that still divides the nation -- more than a half-century after Sweatt made civil rights history
"Fisher gives the Supreme Court the opportunity to clarify the boundaries of race preferences in college admissions -- or, perhaps, eliminate them altogether," says Edward Blum, director of the Project on Fair Representation, which fights against the use of racial and ethnic preferences.
The court has taken a turn to the right since its last ruling upholding affirmative action in 2003. Five justices are on record opposing the practice. That could mean defeat for the university -- and, possibly, a sweeping declaration that racial preferences are unconstitutional, not only at public universities but also at private schools such as Harvard and Yale because they receive federal funds.
"I would hate to see that happen," says Heman Marion Sweatt II, 62, a nephew of Heman Sweatt and a University of Texas graduate. "A lot of people feel that affirmative action is not needed anymore. I would love to see the day when affirmative action is not needed, but realistically, it still has to be dealt with."
On the flip side of that argument is Fisher, a plain-spoken young Texan denied entry into her father's and sister's alma mater. She says racial preferences made her a victim of discrimination.
"There were people in my class with lower grades who weren't in all the activities I was in who were being accepted into UT, and the only other difference between us was the color of our skin," she says in a video posted by Blum's organization to make its case. "For an institution of higher learning to act this way makes no sense to me."
The vast majority of higher education groups say it makes a great deal of sense. In brief after brief submitted to the Supreme Court in support of the Texas flagship university, organizations representing nearly all facets of higher learning - including public research universities, Ivy League schools, undergraduate and law students, even college basketball coaches - argue that colleges and universities must be allowed to consider race and ethnicity in admissions to achieve the educational benefits of a diverse student body. Some say nothing less than the nation's future is at stake.
The United States "is in the midst of a perfect storm of economic crisis, rapidly shifting demographics and lagging educational achievement compared to other nations," says University of Missouri professor Roger Worthington, editor of the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education. "If we do not fix the underlying educational disparities that exist in this country, there is no path forward to regaining our competitiveness on educational or economic grounds."
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