Top US court hears 'affirmative action' varsity case

2015-12-09 22:08
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Washington - The US Supreme Court on Wednesday re-examines the thorny issue of whether race can be used as a factor in college admissions - a decades-old practice known in the United States as "affirmative action".

Used by some schools and universities to help bolster the number of students from minority groups, affirmative action is seen by some as also helping redress decades of racial discrimination.

But opponents complain that white students who might otherwise gain admission to colleges where affirmative action is used are unfairly disadvantaged by policies seeking to increase the numbers of blacks, Hispanics and other minorities.

The top US court weighs in on Wednesday, when it takes up the case of Abigail Fisher, a student who says she was denied admission to the University of Texas because she is white.

'White or black... shouldn't matter' 

"Whether you are a male or a female, or white or black, it shouldn't matter. It should come down to your grades and your activities and whether or not you deserve to get in," Fisher has said.

The case dates back to 2008, when the young woman was turned down for admission to the University of Texas.

The US high court in 1978 affirmed the limited use of race as a factor in admissions, and in 2003 it reaffirmed that finding, but stipulated that affirmative action is legal only if racial quotas are not used.

The University of Texas several years ago, carefully threading that needle, devised a policy which guarantees admission to high school students graduating in the top 10% of their class.

For the rest of its openings, the university takes a number of criteria into account, including class rank, athletics and other extracurricular activities, and ethnic origin.

Some opponents of affirmative action call the practice reverse discrimination, or say it is a relic the past.

Fisher says it is unfair, and that it cost her a slot in the university of her choice.

College admissions decisions "should be based on merit and not on any other external factor", she said.

Diversity, not favourites

Civil rights advocates, however, insist that affirmative action is needed today as much as ever.

"Affirmative action is designed to benefit all students," said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defence and Educational Fund, a civil rights advocacy group.

"It's designed to ensure that the pipeline for leadership and opportunity remains open for minority students, but it's also designed to ensure that the environment, the educational environment where the future leaders of the state are being developed and shaped and educated include a variety of voices from across the range of experiences in the state."

Fisher has given up trying to gain admission to the University of Texas and enrolled elsewhere, but is continuing to press her case.

After she filed suit years ago, it went before the Supreme Court for a first time in October 2012.

At that time, the justices sent the case back to an appeals court in Texas, which ruled against Fisher.

In the intervening years, however, the Supreme Court has become more conservative and less friendly to affirmative action policies.

But banning the practice will come down like a ton of bricks on US university campuses already on edge because of racial tensions.

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