The Bakke Case- The Politics of Inequality

I read a very good book that my teacher has lent me. It is called “The Bakke Case- The Politics of Inequality”. It reflects on the intensely contentious issue in American political debate, which is affirmative action. Should minorities and women get preferential treatment via a minimum quota as a means to compensate for past discrimination, or is it an unfair means to discriminate against white males?
The book is about the big court case Regents of the University of California vs. Bakke.
Allen Bakke was a student in California, who applied for the Medical School at the University of California at Davis. He had a 3.51 GPA when he graduated form the University of Minnesota in mechanical engineering 1 Bakke’s benchmark score at the Medical School was 549 out of 600 2 the so-called Task Force students (minority applicants considered under the affirmative action policies of the University of California) had a GPA range from 2.21 to 3.45. 3
Bakke was denied twice and decided to take the issue to court. His attorney argued “the medical school’s special admission policy denied admission to him solely on the basis of his race thus violating his rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” 4 The trial court sided with Bakke, as well as the California Supreme Court. As the case was taken up to the Supreme Court, UC lawyer Archibald Cox defended affirmative action “a fair and constitutional way of making up for past discrimination against minority groups. The program gave new opportunity to members of groups which had not had these opportunities in the past.” 5 Bakke attorney Colvin countered that the special admission policy violated the equal protection clause granted by the 14th amendment. Ironically, the 14th amendment was passed due to a struggle to protect blacks in the South after the Civil War. Colvin argued that the special admission policy was “reverse discrimination”, a term still often used in the national conversation about affirmative action.
It is a term that denies blacks’ history of past discrimination still alive in this country. It was no surprise that the only black Supreme Court Justice at that time, Thurgood Marshall, voiced his strong opinion. He did not “differentiate between the laws of the country and the treatment of blacks under those laws” 6 He begins with a reminder of U.S. history:
“Three hundred and fifty years ago, the Negro was dragged to this country in chains to be sold into slavery. Uprooted from his homeland and thrust into bondage for forced labor, [438 U.S. 265, 388] the slave was deprived of all legal rights. It was unlawful to teach him to read; he could be sold away from his family and friends at the whim of his master; and killing or maiming him was not a crime. The system of slavery brutalized and dehumanized both master and slave.” 7
He furthered his argument in a powerful conclusion:
“It is unnecessary in 20th-century America to have individual Negroes demonstrate that they have been victims of racial discrimination; the racism of our society has been so pervasive that none, regardless of wealth or position, has managed to escape its impact.” 8
The Court made two decisions, both of them dependent on Justice Powell:
“1. The special admissions program with a fixed quota or number of places available only to minorities violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Those places were denied to white applicants based only on their race. The university’s policy was struck down and the university was ordered to admit Bakke.
2. Admissions programs do not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment if they consider race as one of several factors used to decide admission. Therefore, race may be considered but it may not be the only factor considered.” 9
Bakke should be admitted, affirmative action is “permissible, but not mandatory.” 10
While it can be assumed that a lot of white people never liked affirmative action, there is no evidence that the Bakke case has benefited poor whites in any way, shape or form. Rather, it was a scheme to benefit those that already have wealth and power.11Even as poor white men protest affirmative action we can take their case seriously and advance their cause with boost in financial aid and other policies. But it remains clear that they will never face the kind of hostility and rejection from employers that minorities would. 12
The verdict was disappointing to the black community. In 1988, 10 years after the Bakke decision the proportion of black doctors remained the same (6%), while the proportion for law students increased only slightly (4.7 to 5.1%) 13 The attempt to dismantle institutional discrimination has been diminished. A later court case in 2003, Grutter v. Bollinger et al., stated that “the court reaffirmed the Bakke principle that race may be considered along with other factors in public higher education admissions for the educational purpose of having a diverse student body.” 14
Institutional discrimination is a force that can hardly be dismissed. Thurgood Marshall himself argued (read above) that you can’t escape your racial stigmatization. The assumption that the system generally is fair can be dismissed. Unequal access and funding for education 15, unequal expectation of student achievement, biased Eurocentric curriculum and tracking in terms of race, and other factors contribute to racial inequality. 16 In terms of income it is also clear that white males earn more than blacks or Latinos and women of all races. This sense of inequality is not negligible, but can mean a lot when it comes to educational opportunities, health care, retirement, housing and other fields. It matters a lot if you “purchase an automobile at a lower price than that available to a comparable minority or person of color, not being followed through department stores by clerks or detectives, who seemingly follow all young Hispanic and black man, being offered prompt service while minorities and people of color are often made to wait.” 17 The Advisory Board to the President’s Initiative on Race also recommends more education for people to make them understand the circumstances of minorities to make them more accepting of policies that target minorities such as affirmative action. 18
There are also some other charges that have to be countered: Opponents of affirmative action believe that less qualified people (minorities and women) are hired. First, the tests used to qualify students (SAT) are inaccurate tool to assess a student’s performance in college or in their job 19. Second, there is no evidence that minority students benefiting from affirmative action have lower graduation rates than whites 20
Leading black conservatives like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, ironically the successor of the civil rights attorney and progressive Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court bench, have claimed that affirmative action will only stigmatize blacks and other minorities. 21 On the other hand, it is only through affirmative action that minorities and women obtain the opportunities they otherwise would never have had. They were excluded by institutions of higher learning without affirmative action. 22 The proposition stands that mostly white employers will use the stigmatization argument only to keep off minority workers, instead of being benevolent to minorities by preventing them from getting ” feelings of inferiority, self-doubt, and incompetence.”23 Indeed, it is the access to education and, thus, the access to employment that grants people the power to determine their own lives, something so essential to the American creed. When Bull Connor’s police officers attacked black kids in Birmingham, Alabama, President Kennedy delivered a powerful, unforgettable speech on civil rights. “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.
The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated. If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who will represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?”24
Affirmative action has helped create and sustain the black and Latino middle class 25Michelle Obama or Sonia Sotomayor were clear examples of beneficiaries of affirmative action. Both went to Princeton. Obama got her law degree at Harvard, and Sotomayor got hers at Yale. 26 This black and Latino middle class is deeply imperiled. Ehrenreich and Muhammed argue that blacks and Latinos are not in a recession, as the overall economy suggest, but in a depression, because their unemployment rate has consistently been higher before 2007, before the recession hit the overall economy. 27Wages were declining. Black unemployment rate is at 14.7% (8% for whites). 28 Black families only have 12% of the net worth that white families have (therefore, minimal savings to steer through economically difficult times).29 Latinos lose $75-98 billion in home values, while blacks lose $71-92 billion. 30 Ehrenreich and Muhammed conclude with the following verdict: “We don’t need any more moralizing or glib analyses of class and race that could have just as well been made in the 70s. The recession is changing everything. It’s redrawing the class contours of America in ways that will leave us more polarized than ever, and, yes, profoundly hurting the erstwhile white middle and working classes. But the depression being experienced by people of color threatens to do something on an entirely different scale, and that is to eliminate the black middle class.” 31
This frightening reality should force us to face the harsh effects of institutional racism, discrepancies in education, health care, retirement, job security, wealth, and income, and encourage us to find policies that will provide truly more opportunities to all Americans, since our well-being depend on the well-being of our neighbors, as Franklin D. Roosevelt emphatically reminds us. 32 In terms of affirmative action, we certainly don’t need to apply quotas where the overwhelming majority of the population is white, but we certainly need to sustain quotas to ensure that those people disadvantaged in past and present get access to education and employment.

1 Joel Dreyfuss and Charles Lawrence III, “The Politics of Inequality”, New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1979., p 15
2 ibid., p 29
3 ibid., p 29
4 “Regents of the University of California v. Bakke.” Supreme Court Drama. Ed. Elizabeth M. Shaw. UXL-Thomson Gale, 2001. 2006. 30 Dec, 2009 <
5 ibid.
6 Joel Dreyfuss and Charles Lawrence III, “The Politics of Inequality”, New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1979., p 223
7 Texas Civil Rights Review, “Thurgood Marshall in Bakke”, Sep 24, argued on Oct. 12, 1977, decided on June 28, 1978, retrieved Dec 30, 2009, Section I A <>
8 ibid., Section IV
9 “Regents of the University of California v. Bakke.” Supreme Court Drama. Ed. Elizabeth M. Shaw. UXL-Thomson Gale, 2001. 2006. 30 Dec, 2009 <
10 Joel Dreyfuss and Charles Lawrence III, “The Politics of Inequality”, New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1979., pp 228-233
11 Joel Dreyfuss and Charles Lawrence III, “The Politics of Inequality”, New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1979., pp 228-233
Also, “In arguments about qualification race serves as a mechanism for avoiding an analysis of the broader issues. If minority demands, and confrontations like the Bakke case, serve to expose broad injustices, those with the least to gain from such disclosures are those who already benefit from privilege and whose chances for access are highest. One lesson of the civil rights movement was that many of the victories won by blacks benefited not only minority groups but many whites.” ibid., p. 138
12 “In 1985, two independent studies found striking disparities in the employment levels of college-educated African Americans and Caucasians in the Washington, D.C. area. Both studies found that college-educated African Americans have more difficulty than their Caucasian counterparts in securing employment”. Quoted from: Chima, Felix O., and William D. Wharton. “African Americans and the Workplace: Overview of Persistent Discrimination.” Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission. Web. 31 Dec 2009. p. 2<>
13 Berger, Joseph. “EDUCATION; The Bakke Case 10 Years Later: Mixed Results.” New York Times July 14, 1988: n. pag. Web. 31 Dec 2009. <>.
13 Farley, John E. Majority Minority Relations. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2005. p. 475. Print.
15 “In contrast to European and Asian nations that fund schools centrally and equally, the wealthiest 10 percent of U.S. school districts spend nearly 10 times more than the poorest 10 percent, and spending ratios of 3 to 1 are common within states.” Quoted from: Darling-Hammond, Linda. “Unequal Opportunity: Race and Education.” Brookings Institution Spring 1998: n. pag. Web. 31 Dec 2009. <>
16 Farley, John E. Majority Minority Relations. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2005. p. 465. Print.
17 “Advisory Board to the President’s Initiative on Race”, 1998, “One America in the 21st Century: Forging a New Future. The Advisory Board’s Report to the President.” Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office., p. 46
Also read a perceptive reflection by Robert Jensen on White Privilege: Jensen, Robert W., “White Privilege Shapes the U.S.”, Baltimore Sun, July 19, 1998, 31 Dec 2009. <>
18 see 14
19 Farley, John E. Majority Minority Relations. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2005. p. 465. Print.
20 see 16; also consult Bowen, William G., and Derek Curtis Box. 1998, “The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions”; see also Epstein, Richard A. “The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions – Review.” Reason Feb. 1999: 1-10. Web. 31 Dec 2009. <>.
21 Consider this article that provides background information about Clarence Thomas. He was a beneficiary at law school of affirmative action, but was rejected by white law firms, because they deemed him unqualified, because he was granted the law degree, even though Thomas believed he had worked hard on obtaining his degree. That is how his resentment to affirmative action developed., read Kantor, Jodi, and David Gonzales. “For Sotomayor and Thomas, Paths Diverge at Race.” New York Times June 6, 2009: 1-3. Web. 31 Dec 2009. <>
22 Farley, John E. Majority Minority Relations. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2005. p. 467. Print.
23 Andre, Claire, Manuel Velasquez, and Tim Mazur. “Affirmative Action: Twenty-five Years of Controversy.” Santa Clara University. Web. 31 Dec 2009. <>
24 Kennedy, John F., Radio and Television Report to the American People on Civil Rights, White House, Washington D.C., June 11, 1963, <>
25 Farley, John E. Majority Minority Relations. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2005. p. 472. Print.
Mary Pattillo-McCoy, “Black Picket Fences”, University of Chicago Press., 1999, pp. 1-12, Print, Accessed <>
26 I found a good article about Michelle Obama. A firend said about her that she felt pretty comfortable about benefiting from affirmative action. Wolffe, Richard. “Barack’s Rock.” Newsweek Feb 28, 2008: p. 3. Web. 31 Dec 2009. <>
27 Ehrenreich, Barbara, and Dedrick Muhammed. “The Destruction of the Black Middle Class.” Huffington Post August 4, 2009: n. pag. Web. 31 Dec 2009. <>.
28 ibid.
29 ibid.
30 ibid.
31 ibid.
32 Franklin D. Roosevelt promoted a good-neighbor policy with Latin America in the 1930s and 1940s in order to prevent Latin America from siding with Germany in the war among other goals. “Common ideals and a community of interest, together with a spirit of cooperation, have led to the realization that the well-being of one Nation depends in large measure upon the well-being of its neighbors.” Address before the special session of the Governing Board of the Pan American Union in celebration of Pan American Day. Washington, D. C., April 12, 1933. Accessed <>

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