Fisher v. Texas: good for liberals or not so much?

by Madhu Ramankutty

Yesterday morning, SCOTUS finally released its 7-1 decision on the affirmative-action case, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. What could have been a landmark, sweeping decision on the use of race-based criteria in granting admission to state universities, was instead a fairly anti-climatic and unsatisfying judgment to send the case back to the lower courts for reevaluation. In fact, parts of the majority opinion seemed like a scolding from Anthony Kennedy, who lamented that the lower courts did not follow Supreme Court precedent to apply “strict scrutiny” to any program that required racial classification.

Now, the University of Texas must demonstrate that its affirmative action program advances the university’s—and state’s—legitimate and compelling educational interest. Many liberals see this decision as a good sign: it might seem that, by avoiding a ruling on the issue of affirmative action, the Court’s conservatives have, in fact, reinforced the structural mechanisms that offer protection from the lingering effects of racism.

Instead, I see a weak court unwilling to answer one of the biggest questions of our time: in America, is race still an issue?

On one hand, if the court had issued a decision in favor of the University of Texas’s affirmative action program, it could have provided holistic support for such programs across the nation. On the other hand, had the court ruled against the University in favor of Ms. Fisher, maybe America could finally engage in a much-needed conversation about the best way to provide extra support to those most vulnerable to discrimination. Perhaps racially based affirmative action would be unconstitutional—but what about socioeconomic-based affirmative action? It seems that with a more courageous court, and a more comprehensive decision, we wouldn’t be left lingering in this confusing state of limbo.

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