U.S. Supreme Court Hears Strong Argument Today that Race Should Continue to Be Considered in College Admissions

Civil Rights Organizations, Students, Former Military Leaders, LGBT Groups, Corporations Support Continuing Efforts to Achieve Diversity on Campuses

The U.S. Supreme Court today heard compelling arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin that universities should retain the ability to build diverse student bodies made up of applicants from different backgrounds who meet their high standards. The University considers race as a modest factor, among many aspects of a student’s background.

Seated in the Court was Cissy Marshall, the widow of Thurgood Marshall, the founder of NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund who argued Brown vs. Board of Education before the Supreme Court and later became the first Black Supreme Court justice.  Also in attendance were members of the U.S. Congress, including Bobby Scott and high-ranking members of the Obama administration including Valerie Jarrett.

LDF hopes that the justices will once again recognize the importance of universities securing a critical mass of minority students to combat racial stereotypes and the very real isolation of African-American students on campuses. African-American students have recounted numerous unsettling experiences at the University of Texas at Austin, and, by the University’s own admission, Black students numbered between zero and one in most commonly-sized classes during the most recent period that the University did not consider race.  LDF was pleased that at today’s oral argument the University of Texas expressly referenced the “glaring racial isolation” of our clients, the Black Student Alliance, as conveyed in our amicus brief.

“We are making progress, but we have a long way to go. The Top Ten Percent Plan is not enough. I have white, Asian, Latino and Black friends at school who understand that it’s important to have diversity on campus,” said UT senior David McDonald from outside the Supreme Court. McDonald grew up in a single-parent household and is a first-generation college student. He’s the past president and current advisor to UT Austin’s Black Student Alliance, for whom NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund submitted an amicus brief.

Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the nation’s leading civil rights legal organization and a separate entity from the NAACP stated, “Conservative activist Ed Blum, who is behind this suit and similar ones, never questions the right of colleges to consider anything other than race – like hobbies, gender, age or hometown. To say to a student that everything about you is relevant except for your race, strips away a part of that student’s identity. We need to embrace what makes us different and work to understand each other better. Bringing people together with different backgrounds helps break down racial stereotypes and benefits all people.”

Mary Bonauto from GLAD, who argued the 2015 marriage equality case before the Supreme Court and also submitted an amicus brief in Fisher remarked, “It would be very, very odd and indeed wrong if a student can write an application talking about all of his or her life experiences and attributes and culture including their gender, including their sexual orientation, including their gender identity and not their race. Must a black gay person have to be in the closet about their race? That would be a harshly regressive step for people of all races.”

Justice Breyer powerfully pointed out that just three years ago seven justices of the Court upheld long-standing constitutional precedents about the value and parameters of the use of the permissible use of race as a limited factor in admissions.

Justice Ginsburg specifically questioned the petitioner’s standing based on Fisher’s limited demand for refund of her original application fee as damages in the case.  In addition, Fisher was disqualified from admission due to her academic credentials (based on SAT and class ranking) and would not have been admitted to the University of Texas even in the absence of its affirmative action plan. Nothing in the several areas of her personal background and essays would have changed the outcome, according to the University.

Rachel Kleinman, a senior attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund added, “The University of Texas at Austin convincingly explained to the justices today how it carefully followed the Court’s guidelines when developing an admissions approach that considered race as a limited factor. Diverse learning environments enrich the college experience and better prepare students for success in the workplace and in the military. College opens doors to a lifetime of opportunity that should be in the reach of all children.”

Andy Escobar is a Latino UT student in Washington, D.C. today for the Supreme Court hearing. Because he believes in UT’s race-conscious holistic admissions policy, he co-founded a student campaign at the University called “We Support UT.” He biked from Texas to Alaska to raise funds for cancer research. He interned at the U.S. House of Representatives and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. Andy has lived in poverty, is a first-generation college student and was admitted under the school’s holistic admissions process. His high school rank was very good, but just shy of being admitted automatically to UT under the plan that admits the top ranking students from Texas high schools. Andy stated, “I hope the Court realizes how important getting into a good college is for a person’s ability to succeed in life. I have worked really hard and am thankful I got a fair chance to get into the University of Texas.”  

The Supreme Court received an avalanche of briefs supporting the University’s efforts to create a diverse student body from 45 leading corporations, 36 high-ranking retired military and defense officials (including three former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—General Colin L. Powell, Admiral Michael G. Mullen and General Henry H. Shelton), over 160 Asian American and Pacific  Islander organizations, social scientists, major religious denominations, 19 states, student organizations, over 100 institutions of higher education, among others.

The 36 retired military leaders and defense officials wrote in their brief, “ROTC cannot recruit minority candidates who are not first admitted as students…Invalidating individualized admissions at ROTC-participating colleges and universities such as UT and reducing the critical mass of highly qualified minority candidates they seek to assemble would capsize an effort by the Armed Forces that has been ongoing since the Truman Administration. As explained above, the post-September 11, 2001 world has reinforced our military’s recognition that the ability to lead diverse groups of people and to collaborate well with people of different cultures constitute invaluable military leader attributes.”

Forty-five leading American businesses — such as American Express, Microsoft, Sprint, Starbucks and Xerox — wrote to the Court that “American corporations must address the needs of an increasingly diverse U.S. population and a growing global market, and they need a workforce trained in a diverse environment in order to succeed in these arenas… When amici make decisions about hiring and promotion, it is critical that they be able to draw from a superior pool of candidates — both minority and non-minority — who have realized the many benefits of diversity in higher education.”

A Brief from Asian Americans Advancing Justice and 140 other Asian American or Pacific Islander organizations explained, “AAPIs [Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders] historically benefited from inclusion in race-conscious admission programs, that certain AAPI [Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders] subgroups continue to need and benefit from such programs today, and that all AAPI [Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders] students benefit from more racially diverse (and less racially hostile) college campuses.”

About NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund

Founded in 1940, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) is the nation’s leading legal organization fighting for racial justice in America.  LDF has been a separate entity from the NAACP since 1957. For seven decades, LDF has worked to dismantle racial segregation and ensure educational opportunities at every level of education.  In its first two decades, LDF undertook a coordinated legal assault against officially enforced public school segregation.  This campaign culminated in Brown v. Board of Education. LDF has been involved in Fisher v. University of Texas from the outset.  On behalf of the UT Black Student Alliance and UT African-American alumni, LDF presented oral argument in Fisher v. UT before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in support of the University’s admissions policy and filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court.  LDF’s efforts in Fisher carry forward the legacy of our past leaders, beginning with Thurgood Marshall, LDF’s first Director-Counsel and the first black Supreme Court Justice, whose advocacy in Sweatt v. Painter led to the desegregation of UT Austin Law School in 1950