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Affirmative action's foggy future

By Rachel Potucek

 

Despite a recent Supreme Court decision upholding it, the future of affirmative action is not secure, according to Kansas State University political science professor Krishna Tummala, pictured below. California's changing racial makeup and the next presidential administration could test affirmative action in legal and theoretical ways.

Krishna TummalaCalifornia's definition of "minority" could change who receives affirmative action assistance, Tummala said. In California, Hispanic groups comprise the fastest-growing population and will soon outnumber Caucasians.

What happens when a previously designated minority becomes the majority? This poses a dilemma for affirmative action policy-makers and theorists: Should affirmative action support Caucasians, if they are a minority? According to U.S. law, Caucasians would be entitled to affirmative action.

"Some people in this country believe affirmative action is for one particular minority. It is not," Tummala said. "'Minority' is an inclusive, not an exclusive term. The law does not differentiate between minorities."

However, affirmative action was designed to counteract historical discrimination placed upon minorities by Caucasians, Tummala said. Is it theoretically justifiable to give the historically dominant social group – Caucasians – access to affirmative action privileges? Californians will not have to make that decision, since the state has abolished affirmative action in government programs, including university admissions.

Should the Supreme Court turn conservative with new appointees in the future, it could agree with affirmative action opponents and decide affirmative action is illegal.

Since conservative justices were added to the Supreme Court bench by presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the Supreme Court has ruled against affirmative action in several key decisions, slowly limiting how universities and businesses can use it.

"None of the decisions upholding affirmative action were unanimous," Tummala said. In fact, most decisions upholding affirmative action were 5-4 splits.

The future of affirmative action is still "anybody's guess, since it depends on what kind of court we are going to get," Tummala said. Depending on who wins the presidency and who will control Congress, the next presidential appointment may change the balance between conservative, moderate and liberal justices. Tummala believes new conservative justices could upset the 5-4 balance and reverse fundamental affirmative action decisions.

"The next presidential election is for more than the executive branch, it is also for the courts," he said.

Fall 2003