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."
Denied because 'he is a negro'
Before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case of 1954 -- the unanimous court decision striking down public school segregation -- there was Sweatt v. Painter.
It was a simple case. Sweatt had sued the university and its president, Theophilus Painter, for denying him admission to the UT law school in 1946 because, as Painter said at the time, "of the fact that he is a negro."
To represent him before the Supreme Court, Sweatt chose Thurgood Marshall, who would go on to become the court's first black justice. He won the case based on another "fact" -- that he could not get an equally sound legal education elsewhere in Texas. It was the first time the court had ordered a black student admitted to an all-white institution.
Sweatt left the law school before graduating, the victim of chronic health problems and a divorce. But his case may be more relevant to the court's consideration of Fisher than most of the cases that have followed, including Brown.
Today, those rulings have become victims of their own success; schools and colleges have grown more integrated. In Grutter v. Bollinger, the court's 5-4 decision upholding the University of Michigan Law School's limited use of affirmative action, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor predicted, "The Court expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary."
The Michigan case wasn't a slam dunk for the civil rights movement. The court also ruled 6-3 against the university's more numerical system of racial preferences for undergraduate admissions. And the O'Connor decision included a dissent from Justice Anthony Kennedy that takes on added weight today: Since her retirement, he has become the swing vote.
"Preferment by race, when resorted to by the state, can be the most divisive of all policies," Kennedy wrote in Grutter.
Kennedy's significance as the man in the middle hasn't been lost on lawyers for Fisher and the university. They mention him by name 50 times in their three main briefs.
Fisher's lawyers contend that the university seeks "racial balancing," something Kennedy clearly doesn't sanction. "Racial balance is not to be achieved for its own sake," he wrote in a Georgia desegregation case in 1992.
The school's lawyers say in using race as one factor, the university isn't resorting to quotas or numerical targets, which Kennedy disavowed in his Grutter dissent. They say the lawsuit "is just asking this court to move the goal posts on higher education in America and overrule its precedent going back 35 years."
If the Supreme Court rules that the university went too far in using racial preferences, the campus could see a drop in black and Hispanic enrollments, just as it did after the 5th Circuit Court outlawed a race-conscious admissions policy used by the University of Texas School of Law in 1996. A year later, state legislators created the "Top 10 Percent" plan, through which students in the top 10% of their high school graduating class are automatically admitted to the state university of their choice.
That law has helped schools boost racial diversity, primarily because most of the state's public high schools are segregated by race and ethnicity, but not enough to achieve a "critical mass." After the Supreme Court upheld the University of Michigan's affirmative action program, the University of Texas again began factoring race into admissions.
If the justices decide more broadly that extra measures designed to boost racial and ethnic representation on campus are unconstitutional or no longer necessary, the nation's most selective universities, public and private, will lose a long-standing tool aimed at furthering their mission to prepare a diverse pool of well-trained graduates for leadership roles.
A ruling against the university or against using race in admissions threatens to upend a tradition by the court of deference toward university decision-making, says Ada Meloy, general counsel of the American Council on Education, a non-profit group that represents higher education institutions in Washington.
"It is so important to the vast majority of higher education institutions to be able to assemble the kind of student body that they think best fits their mission," Meloy says. Colleges would probably turn to race-neutral alternatives used by public universities where affirmative action has been banned, she says.
Already, public universities in Texas, California and other states have stepped up recruitment in high schools where the student body is made up predominantly of underrepresented minorities, established partnerships with schools to improve the pipeline of minority students, and established scholarships. The University of Georgia, Texas A&M University and the University of California system have dropped preferences for children of alumni, which tend to favor white students from relatively affluent families.
Colleges also might de-emphasize or eliminate an admissions requirement for standardized test scores, on which black and Hispanic students tend to score lower than white and Asian students.
In a study by the non-profit think tank Century Foundation, author Richard Kahlenberg argues universities should accept that affirmative action has run its course and replace racial preferences with class-based preferences such as parental income, parents' education levels and resources available where they live.
Studies of the University of California, where racial preferences have been banned since 1996, suggest such measures would not be sufficient. At the University of California-Los Angeles, for example, African-American students represented 6.7% of its freshman class in 1995, but only 3% in 1998 and 3.6% last year despite multiple race-neutral strategies.
"All of our efforts in terms of outreach have not made an impact," says Youlonda Copeland-Morgan, associate vice chancellor of enrollment management. "Race matters."
In Del Valle, Texas, a predominantly black and Hispanic community east of Austin, Del Valle High School college counselor Sarah Mabry says many of her brightest students have overcome great obstacles to get to the point where they would even consider applying to a prestigious school such as the University of Texas.
"Let's give everybody the chance they deserve," she says. "For God's sake, this is America."
'The process is wrong'
An end to racial preferences would come as a setback to Sweatt's descendants -- among them his daughter, who is a pathologist; another nephew, who is a doctor; and a 13-year-old grandson, who will be in court taking copious notes for his school newspaper.
"If you have to ask somebody, 'Do we need affirmative action?' then I think that answers the question," says nephew Heman Sweatt II.
Fisher, who graduated this year from Louisiana State University and is working in Austin as a financial analyst, couldn't disagree more.
"If people say anything about me, I hope they say I didn't take this sitting down," she says. "I didn't accept the process, because the process is wrong."
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