Affirmative action programs are now facing their greatest tests in a generation and the United States Supreme Court review of two cases is leaving many proponents nervous about the upcoming decisions.
In fact, many affirmative action supporters in the academic world and in politics contend that it is crucial that the court upholds provisions that allow race to be taken into account in college admissions and elsewhere.
“The stakes are extremely high because people want to assume that the job of affirmative action is done,” said James B. Peterson, director of Africana Studies at Lehigh University, in an interview with BET.com. “People want to believe that we no longer need affirmative action and nothing could be further from the truth.”
The court is already reviewing a challenge to the admissions program at the University of Texas in which race is a consideration. But the court recently said it would also consider the constitutionality of a Michigan voter initiative that barred racial preferences in admissions to that state’s public colleges.
The decisions in the two cases could well reshape – and even eliminate – the nation’s affirmative action landscape, many in elective office and academia insist.
“Is there cause for worry? Of course,” said Hasan Kwame Jeffries, a professor of African-American history at Ohio State University, speaking with BET.com. “When you consider the potential of what the decisions might well be, it would be a one-two punch that would eliminate affirmative action in the public sphere.”
The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the Michigan case during the term that starts in October. However, it is expected to rule on the Texas case shortly.
Peterson said that the success of high-profile Black figures such as President Obama, Oprah Winfrey and others has caused many Americans to believe there is no longer a need for race to be a factor in admissions or corporate hiring.
“But when you look at the data, when you look at lending practices, unemployment rates, the effects of public education on communities of color, as well as the effects of the prison industrial complex, it is clear that affirmative action has a long way to go,” Peterson said.
He added that the court’s current review of same-sex marriage laws has steered public attention away from the topic of affirmative action.
“I really feel like the gay marriage debate is obscuring the fact that affirmative action is even on the docket of the Supreme Court,” Peterson said. “The fact of the matter is that we’re at a moment where Black exceptionalism and Black success are completely rendering invisible Black pain and Black suffering.”
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