The Berkeley Journal of African-American Law & Policy at the UC Berkeley School of Law held its annual symposium Monday, bringing together scholars from across the country to discuss the constitutionality and practicality of various frameworks of affirmative action.
The BJALP symposium came in the wake of two recent Supreme Court cases focusing on affirmative action: Fisher v. University of Texas and Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action. Though speakers differed on the nuances of what constitutes affirmative action, most agreed it makes a crucial and systemic impact on American society.
“It’s a broader issue, about mobility and opportunity,” said Stanford law professor Ralph Richard Banks in the morning panel. “Those who have, actually get more; those who don’t have, actually get less.”
In June of last year, affirmative action was challenged in Fisher v. University of Texas, when the plaintiff, Abigail Fisher, filed a claim against UT for rejecting her from admittance into their 2008 class. She claimed to have been rejected despite being more qualified than some minority students who were admitted.
In an “unexpected” 7-1 ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas, the Supreme Court ordered that the U.S. Court of Appeals 5th Circuit apply strict scrutiny to determine the constitutionality of the race-based admissions program at UT. This entails that university admissions policies be narrowly tailored to prove race is a necessary factor in maintaining diversity.
Last October, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action challenged the Michigan ballot initiative Proposal 2, which in 2006 banned race from being a factor in admission to state-funded institutions. A Supreme Court decision on whether to overturn Proposal 2 is expected this spring.
California’s public universities are also limited to race-neutral admissions, due to the 1996 passage of Prop. 209, which prohibits public universities in California from considering race, ethnicity or gender in admissions. In 2012, the University of California issued a friend of the court brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, urging it to strike down Proposal 2 and allow for a race-conscious admissions process.
CalSERVE senator Destiny Iwuoma recognizes the impact that affirmative action has on campus. He noted that since affirmative action was banned in 1996, the black population on campus has dropped significantly.
Iwuoma, a member of the on-campus campaign called Invest in Graduations, Not Incarceration, Transform Education, noted that the group is in full support of the bill SCA 5, which could essentially change the California constitution to include race, class and ethnicities in admissions processes.
The symposium’s most attended event was the afternoon keynote address, which focused on the debate between class- and race-based affirmative action. Keynote speaker Richard Kahlenberg from the Century Foundation in Washington, D.C., argued that affirmative action based on socioeconomic status is a more viable option than that based on race, calling it the future of affirmative action.
But opposing speaker Stephen Menendian from the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society contended that race and class are theoretically inseparable.
“Race and class is a false dichotomy,” Banks said. “One cannot account for the dynamics of inequality without race.”