The Debate of Affirmative Action in Public Universities (Bakke 1978)

The Debate of Affirmative Action in Public Universities (Bakke 1978)

By studying the build-up and fallout of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), this article explores the cases for and against affirmative action, especially in the context of public universities and their admissions processes.

Many people believe that affirmative action seeks to justify racial discrimination by making admission processes favor certain groups over others based on racial preference as opposed to academic achievement. This stirs the debate over “reverse racism,” which was fought at the University of California at Davis in 1978 when Allan Bakke, a white applicant, was repeatedly denied by admissions despite having “significantly higher” scores than the racial minority applicants who were accepted. Bakke credited the University’s quota system, which reserved 16 out of 100 seats for minorities, and sued the University of California for supposedly violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – a section which prohibits government institutions from discriminating based on race.

The California Supreme Court agreed and stated that “no applicant may be rejected because of his race in favor of another who is less qualified, as measured by standard applied without regard to race.” The Constitutional Equal Protection Clause, which still forbids states from denying “any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws,” was cited to deem UC Davis’ racial quotas a form of racial discrimination. The University of California was ordered to shut down its system. Upon the demand, the University appealed to the United States Supreme Court, who then saw their case in 1978. The federal verdict which followed partially contradicted the California Supreme Court’s decision and set the modern precedent for the legality of affirmative action in public college admissions.

However, many Americans agree with the California Supreme Court’s conservative decision. The quota system used by UC Davis is a form of affirmative action, which some believe to be simply discrimination with no value or ethicality. More moderate opposers to believe this and similar policies to be well-intentioned but ultimately outdated, and that minorities have already achieved the equality which affirmative action seeks to create. Although there is a broad spectrum of beliefs on forms of racial reparations, there is a binding agreement amongst the general opposition; discrimination is discrimination, no matter the context or motive. They believe that, in order to achieve equality, we must begin treating everyone equally beginning now – as opposed to temporarily giving exceptional opportunities to those who are socially disadvantaged. Views such as these appeared to rise after the 1978 United States Supreme Court case which followed, as evident in the passage of Proclamation 209 and widespread illegalization of affirmative action in college admissions (explained in greater detail later).

In Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), the Supreme Court ruled that states can constitutionally consider race as a factor in its university admissions process to promote academic diversity, but only if considered alongside other factors and on a case-by-case basis. Only because UC Davis selected applicants on their race alone and disregarded other factors did the Court condemn the practices of the University. This decision, despite condemning the quota system, was perceived as upholding affirmative action by sympathetic moderates.

However, there were many disagreements with the decision, even amongst the left. More avid supporters of affirmative action believe that the quota system ensured the most oppressed have the same opportunity as the most privileged. Advocates often believe in the philosophy of “equity, not equality,” which implies that inequalities already exist and declares that equal treatment only results in the same or more inequality. Therefore, instead of practicing equal treatment to all, they stress equity, which suggests giving disadvantaged groups more aid in catching up to the privileged. More moderate advocates of affirmative action would likely disagree with the University of California Davis’ 16-in-100 quota system, but ultimately find value in the central philosophy of the policy. Although they acknowledge the past oppression and current disadvantage of minorities, they often disagree with taking drastic action to mend these inequalities – usually out of the fear of more division or the loss of dominant status.

The Supreme Court agreed (and continues to agree) with the moderates, as they found it irrelevant that minorities have been historically discriminated against and found the only justification for affirmative action to be academic diversity. Along these lines, the Court decided that race can only be factored into the admission process if it is informal and considered among other factors. This means that the quota system used by UC Davis is unconstitutional and “odious to a free people whose institutions are founded upon the doctrine of equality.” Nevertheless, the Supreme Court also decided that race, for the sake of promoting diversity, can be rationed in the process of college admissions, so long as its consideration is accompanied with other factors and proper qualifications. This remains the federal judicial stance on the issue today and the primary belief among much of the electorate and those in power.

Since the ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court has seen many cases involving affirmative action in public schooling, and the Court has remained mostly consistent with their verdicts. However, in 1995, the voters of California narrowly chose to become the first state to ban the consideration of race in the admission processes of all public universities (Proposition 209). As a result, UC Berkeley witnessed a 61% drop in the admissions of African Americans, Latinx, and Native American students in the first year that the law took effect (1997). Due to this ban, none of California’s 32 public universities currently report considering race in admissions – despite the known prevalence of informal racial preference in specific admission processes. Since the successful Proposition 209 ballot question, seven states (MI, NE, AZ, FL, NH) have followed California’s lead and continue to have bans on the consideration of race in public university admissions.

In my opinion, policies such as affirmative action play a pivotal role in repaying disadvantaged groups for past oppression and current inequalities. When studying the current situation of most marginalized groups, it is clear to me the need for some form of reparations and assistance in creating an equal society. However, we must equilibrize our nation’s prosperity across racial lines without straining already-tense race relations. This may prove to be near impossible, as suggested by the intense opposition to affirmative action, but these are perhaps necessary growing pains in achieving true racial equality. No matter the outcome, I believe the debate which arose from Regents of the University of California v. Bakke is crucial in advancing our nation’s urgent racial discussion. If I were on the U.S. Supreme Court, I would find the quota system constitutional and essential to ensuring minorities have equal opportunity to the privileged. As seen from the results of Proposition 209, when we ignore the issue of race, the disadvantaged continue to suffer, and the privileged continue to grow wealthier. Therefore, affirmative action policies should be implemented in a society which genuinely values equality, since temporary equity is needed to achieve our desired landscape of equality across racial lines.

Ultimately, the future of affirmative action remains uncertain. In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that voters have the right to decide on issues of affirmative action in their state (Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action), assumedly leading to more states illegalizing the consideration of race in admission processes. Luckily, states which have already illegalized the process have implemented other diversity guidelines to ensure similar results to a quota system. These strategies include the creation of percent plans (TX, CA, FL) to ensure the highest ranked students of respective high school get accepted into colleges, supposedly including those from under-resourced high schools. Colleges without affirmative action are also funding new financial aid programs, improving academic support, and lessening the power of legacies. From these policies, there have been much better results than many expected from advocates of affirmative action. These trends indicate that, even if states vote to illegalize affirmative action in public schools, there will likely be other opportunities for the disadvantaged to prosper in the academic environment. Ultimately, these alternatives programs do not guarantee the same results of UC Davis’ quota system, but they are still likely the future of affirmative action in the college admission process – for better or worse.


Works Cited

McBride, Alex. “The Supreme Court Expanding Civil Rights – Regents of University of California v. Bakke (1978).” THIRTEEN, PBS,

“Proposition 209: Prohibition Against Discrimination or Preferential Treatment by State and Other Public Entities.” The California Legislature’s Nonpartisan Fiscal and Policy Advisor, Legislative Analyst’s Office, Nov. 1996,

Potter, Halley. “What Can We Learn from States That Ban Affirmative Action?” The Century Foundation, 18 Apr. 2016,

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