Jarius Sowells (left) and Tedra Jacobs (right) had contrasting experiences after they were admitted to UT-Austin. (Sarah Garland)
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In 2008, two young women with similar academic records applied to the University of Texas at Austin for spots in the freshman class. One of the women, Abigail Fisher, was rejected. The other, Tedra Jacobs, was accepted. Fisher is white. Jacobs is black. Fisher sued, saying the university's admission process was discriminatory. Now, her case is before the Supreme Court, which will hear arguments today. The decision, which may be issued as late as next summer, could set new limits on the use of racial preferences in higher education, or even ban affirmative action outright.
"It could have been me who took her spot," says Jacobs. She is not apologetic, and neither is the university. Admitting students like Jacobs through affirmative action is part of the school's strategy to ensure that that the next generation of leaders is more representative of the nation's diversity than the last one. (There may be a black president in the White House, but there are no African Americans and only two Hispanics in the Senate.)
The court's decision in Fisher v. University of Texas could deal a major blow to efforts to promote racial diversity in education. In a 2007 decision, the court already significantly restricted the use of race in elementary and secondary school assignments; now, only a handful of districts around the nation actively attempt to integrate their schools, and racial separation in schools is back to levels not seen since the 1950s. The decision to take up the Fisher case suggests the justices may be willing to reverse precedents in a 2003 University of Michigan case and the 1978 Bakke decision, which both upheld the use of race in college admissions.