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Widening the Path of Mobility: The Future of Race Conscious Admissions

For some, the Supreme Court's decision to uphold the University of Texas' affirmative action policy is a major win, but for one expert it may be time for the conversation to shift.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court decided in a 4 to 3 vote that the admissions program at UT is lawful under the Equal Protection Clause. Sigal Alon, a sociologist at the University of Tel Aviv, said in a statement to NBCBLK that the decision is good news.

"Yet, moving forward, the applicant's race/ethnicity can no longer be the only factor considered in admissions decisions," she said. "In my opinion, the future of race-conscious admissions depends on whether elite institutions will be able to bring more poor and first-generation-in-college students from all race/ethnicity groups to campus."

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Alon is no stranger to the topic of race-based admission in the United States. Her book "Race, Class and Affirmative Action" places affirmative action policies in the U.S. alongside class-based affirmative action policies in Israel.

The book makes the case that these programs are necessary because they diversify learning environments and also result in providing a greater mobility for students who would not normally have such access. However, Alon finds, there is no silver bullet for combating inequality.

Book Cover of Race, Class and Affirmative Action
Cover of Race, Class and Affirmative Action book written by sociologist Sigal Alon. Russell Sage Foundation

"We live in a challenging time: income inequality is on the rise," she said. "While affirmative action programs in the US are successful in generating racial/ethnic diversity and in widening the path for mobility for minorities; applicants from socioeconomically underprivileged backgrounds are falling behind in the competition over slots at elite schools."

The case was brought before the Supreme Court by Abigail Fisher, a graduate of Louisiana State University who was denied admission to UT under the school's Top 10 Percent Rule. She argued that the school's use of race when assessing the qualifications of the remaining applicant pool violated the Equal Protection Clause in the Constitution.

Justice Anthony Kennedy delivered the opinion of the court, advising that the school refine its policy.

"It is the University's ongoing obligation to engage in constant deliberation and continued reflection regarding its admissions policies," he wrote.

It could be considered ironic that the decision comes four months after the passing of one of the court's most staunch opponents to affirmative action, Justice Antonin Scalia. Scalia passed unexpectedly on February 13.

Protesters March On Washington To Mark 50 Year Anniversary of Brown vs. Board Of Ed
Activists organized by BAMN (By Any Means Necessary) prepare to march to the US Supreme Court May 15, 2004 in Washington, DC to mark the anniversary of the Brown vs Board of Education decision. The groups marched to further the ideal and goals of the civil rights, such as affirmative action and equal education. Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images

Scalia came under fire in December when he questioned whether affirmative action caused some harm to minority students because it allows them enrollment into institutions where they may not be capable of succeeding.

"There are those who contend that it does not benefit African Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a slower-track school where they do well," Scalia said referencing an amicus brief.

Opponents of affirmative action, like Benjamin J. Crump, president of the National Bar Association, strongly criticized Scalia for his comments at the time. As news spread of Scalia's passing in February, Crump expressed his condolences in a statement to NBCBLK and added, "It is our hope that President Obama will quickly nominate and the Senate timely confirm a nominee to fill the vacancy in the U.S. Supreme Court created by Justice Scalia's passing."

Obama named a successor a month after Scalia's passing. However, Senate Republicans have vowed to block federal appeals court judge Merrick Garland's appointment, arguing that the American public should have a say in the next judge and their votes will be made known with the election of the next President.

Nicole Austin-Hillery, director and counsel at The Brennan Center for Justice in Washington, D.C. told NBCBLK that she was disappointed in the members of Congress as they voiced their refusal even before the president named a replacement.

She said it is vitally important for the President and Congress to remember their duties.

"I am startled when members of congress say things like they are not going to hold hearings. Those things are in direct contradiction to the oath that they took," she said. "The guiding principle should be about following the constitution."

Organizations like A Better Chance, who work to diversify the student populations of elite boarding high schools through a scholarship program, are celebrating the Supreme Court's decision.

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"Gaps in academic achievement based on race continue. Many students of color are unable to realize their full potential because they lack access to quality educational experiences, Sandra Timmons, A Better Chance president said in a statement to NBCBLK. "The decision comes at a time when broad extra efforts to open up access to high quality educational opportunities for many students of color needs to advance more than ever."

Alon believes now is as good as ever to have a deeper conversation about diversity within elite institutions.

"Given the high level of both racial/ethnic and economic inequality in elite institutions, now is a good time to have a discussion about kind of diversity we want to see," she said. "And what aspects we should target in order to achieve the broadest, and most desirable, diversity dividends. I think we should have that discussion."

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