In a major civil rights ruling, a narrow majority struck down two school-enrollment plans.
Public school districts may not use race as the deciding factor in assigning students to schools.
While the race of a student can be one of many characteristics taken into consideration to achieve diversity in the student body, it may not become the predominant criterion that determines which students are admitted to the most popular schools in a district.
In a major 5-to-4 decision announced Thursday, the US Supreme Court struck down race-based public school enrollment plans in Seattle and Louisville, Ky., that were designed to maintain racially integrated student populations. The majority justices said the plans were unconstitutional because they relied too heavily on race in violation of the mandate that all Americans be treated equally regardless of skin color or ethnicity.
"What do the racial classifications at issue here do, if not accord differential treatment on the basis of race?" asks Chief Justice John Roberts in his majority opinion.
In announcing the ruling, Chief Justice Roberts gave public-school administrators throughout the nation perhaps their toughest assignment yet: Find a way to remain faithful to the promise of racially integrated schools under the landmark 1954 decision, Brown v. Board of Education, but do it without paying inordinate attention to the racial or ethnic background of the students.
The decision in two consolidated cases is likely to spark legal challenges to many affirmative-action plans and other proactive race-conscious measures aimed at reaching out to African-Americans and other minorities.
The ruling brought immediate and heated reaction.
"We're very outraged by it, and we'll fight it, as we say, by any means necessary," says George Washington, a lawyer with the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action in Detroit. "It's an attempt to end racial progress in this country. It's an attempt to freeze de facto segregation as it now exists in this country."
Page 1 of 4