A compelling national interest

Linda Brown Smith
Linda Brown Smith was a third-grader when her father started a class-action suit in 1951 of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., leading to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 landmark decision against school segregation. Photo: Associated Press
It started with a girl named Linda Brown.The landmark 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., triggered an end to what the U.S. Supreme Court ruled as “inherently unequal” segregated schools and launched a new fight to correct the wrongs of the past without violating the rights of those in the present.

The fight is now called “diversity,” and while twenty-somethings may consider the word a simple fact of modern-day life — that classrooms and workplaces should resemble the American population — the struggle is still being waged in courtrooms across the country.

Over the years, the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently ruled that diversity is a compelling national interest. The problem lies not in the question of why it is, but rather, in the search for the answer of how to achieve it.

President Lyndon B. Johnson painted broad strokes during his historic 1965 speech at Howard University when he boldly proclaimed that “freedom wasn’t enough.”

“You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair,” Johnson said.

But affirmative action — the well-intentioned child of integration and the mother of diversity — has never settled well in all American hearts.

Starting with the 1978 Regents of the University of California v. Bakke case, which both banned quota systems and upheld affirmative action programs in college admissions, and continuing most recently in the 2003 University of Michigan cases and last year’s suits against school districts in Seattle and Louisville, Ky., the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed that diversity is a good thing and necessary to avoid racial isolation. But the increasingly conservative court has narrowly defined the use of race in achieving those goals, and has instead ruled that race-neutral admission policies and integration plans are essential — and constitutional.
Ruby Bridges

U.S. Deputy Marshals escort 6-year-old Ruby Bridges from William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, La., in Nov. 1960. Bridges was the only black child enrolled in the school, where parents of white students boycotted the court-ordered integration law and pulled their children out of school. Photo: Associated Press

It’s been a long road.

Twenty years after the Bakke decision, for instance, debates raged across the country over the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that race could — and indeed should — be used as one of the many collegiate admission policies in order promote diversity.

On the pro-affirmative action side, in 1998 former Harvard University President Derek Bok and former Princeton University professor William Bowen published “The Shape of the River,” a much-heralded study detailing the lifelong gains made by students who attended schools with strong affirmative action programs and admissions policies.

But in California, voters passed Proposition 209, limiting the use of such programs in that state’s schools. At the time, 16 other states were considering similar legal measures.

The clock is still ticking.

“We expect,” wrote U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor for the majority in the court’s ruling on the 2003 Michigan law school case, “that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interests approved today.”

Whether that’s true remains to be seen.

What is clear is that corporate America has recognized the need for diversity on the college level, however that goal is achieved.

“The students of today are this country’s corporate leaders of the next half-century,” 65 U.S. corporations stated in an amicus curiae brief filed in support of the University of Michigan’s admissions policies. “For these students to realize their potential as leaders, it is essential that they be educated in an environment where they are exposed to diverse people, ideas, perspectives and interactions.

“Today’s global marketplace and the increasing diversity in the American population demand the cross-cultural experience gained from such an education …”

Condoleezza Rice
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (center) poses with members of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Show Choir following a Feb. 2008 performance at the State Department in Washington. Photo: Associated Press

Barack Obama
Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., speaks during an outdoor Feb. 2008 rally in San Marcos, Texas. Photo: Associated Press