Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Supreme Court does minorities a favor

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
updated 2:36 PM EDT, Mon June 24, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette says affirmative action ruling is a signal
  • He says court requiring universities to demonstrate justification for the program
  • Navarrette: A generation ago, affirmative action was needed to remedy wrongs
  • He says his children are being raised with every advantage

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette

San Diego, California (CNN) -- The Supreme Court just did Latinos and African-Americans a big favor.

It showed the two minority groups most impacted by affirmative action the writing on the wall and prodded them to end their crippling dependence on a program that, while intended to help them when it was designed a half-century ago, now arguably does them harm.

On the surface, with its lopsided 7-to-1 ruling in Fisher v. The University of Texas, the Supreme Court resolved to do not that much.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

The justices ducked the weightier constitutional concerns involved in the issue of whether colleges and universities can take an applicant's race or ethnicity into account. But they did scold the lower courts for their handling of the case and demand that they give the facts and the law another look.

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy pointed out that the Supreme Court had previously set a standard of "strict scrutiny" -- by which the burden lies on institutions of higher learning to show that they couldn't have gotten where they wanted to go in terms of achieving a diverse student body by using "race-neutral alternatives." The lower courts didn't hold the University of Texas at Austin to that standard, Kennedy said, and so they need a do-over.

The court's four most conservative justices agreed with Kennedy, but so did Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, who are more liberal.

Let's give the majority of the justices some credit for not getting too carried way with the notion of victimhood. They could have suggested, along with Justice Clarence Thomas, that Abigail Fisher -- the onetime applicant to the University of Texas at Austin who was at the center of the case -- is the modern-day equivalent of those African-Americans who, in the pre-civil rights era, were routinely discriminated against and denied admission to colleges and universities because of their race. Thomas essentially compared what the University of Texas at Austin does now to what the University of Mississippi was doing in 1963.

Seriously? Here's what really happened in the Lone Star State. When Fisher applied in 2008, the university set aside three-fourths of its available slots to students who graduated in the top 10% of their high school classes. (Today, it's 8%.)

Fisher's academics weren't strong enough to get her into that category; she graduated in the top 12%. And rather than admit that she should have earned better grades, she got angry with the university which doled out other slots under a process that weighed several factors including race and socioeconomic status.

After all, a diverse state deserves a diverse class of leaders. Texas is 12% African-American and 38% Latino while the student body at UT Austin -- with its 52,000 students -- is just 4.5% African-American and 18% Latino.

Curiously, Fisher blamed the university's policy -- rather than her own academic shortcomings -- for not getting into the University of Texas. And then, she filed a lawsuit. She found her way to Louisiana State University, and the case bearing her name quickly found its way to the Supreme Court, where it was welcomed onto the docket by five justices who were already itching to strike down affirmative action.

Despite what Justice Thomas would like to believe, Fisher is no victim. Had she worked a little harder in high school, she might have gotten into college on "the 10% rule" and saved us all a lot of drama. Besides, aren't conservatives the ones who are always talking about merit? Yet, here they went to bat for mediocrity.

It is simply not the case that white people are -- in the admissions process -- being subjected to some wholesale form of discrimination because they have long been considered inferior due to skin color. They don't need to link arms and sing: "We Shall Overcome."

Now, if you want to see real victims, look at African-American and Latino students who are being shortchanged by the public school system because those who teach them harbor low expectations. This is one of the most serious problems with racial and ethnic preferences -- that they camouflage what are often severe educational inequalities at the critical K-12 level. They can also lower standards, kill incentive, provide a crutch, attach a stigma to beneficiaries, and perpetuate a destructive spoils system that benefits a few at the expense of the many.

My parents' generation suffered real discrimination, and so it made sense to give it a leg-up through affirmative action. But it makes no sense to transfer that privilege to my children...
Ruben Navarrette

These programs should have come with an expiration date. It's been more than 50 years since President John F. Kennedy signed -- on March 6, 1961 -- Executive Order 10925, instructing U.S. government contractors to take "affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin."

My parents' generation suffered real discrimination, and so it made sense to give it a leg up through affirmative action. But it makes no sense to transfer that privilege to my children, who are being raised with every advantage. When that sort of thing happens, it only makes the public more cynical and bitter.

The Supreme Court gave affirmative action in college and university admissions a reprieve this week, but it won't last long. The justices have another case on their docket for the fall.

The hour is late. Latinos and African-Americans have the chance to end their dependence on a program that is taking them nowhere, and the rest of us can focus on fixing a broken educational system so that more students of color can succeed on the natural and go anywhere they want to go.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:26 PM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT