School segregation and desegregation were among the most controversial topics in the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. The Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education outlawed segregation of blacks and whites in public schools, though studies have shown that the educational levels of white students and minority students remains unequal. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in education on the basis of race but does not contain mechanisms to ensure that education of all students, minority or non-minority, remains entirely equal.
Initial efforts to ensure educational equality focused on forced integration of students of different races. This effort involved the process of busing students from areas with a largely black population to schools in traditionally white areas. Many of these efforts have been found to be unconstitutional. Schools in higher education sought to provide some level of equality by mandating that a certain number of minorities fill positions in entering classes. However, the Supreme Court in Bakke v. Board of Regents ruled that such a requirement violated the Equal Protection Clause. Though some schools continue to consider race as a factor in college admissions, the legality of such considerations are progressively becoming more questionable. For example, in 1996, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the 1996 case of Hopwood v. Texas that the University of Texas School of Law could not consider race as a factor in the admission of law students, even though the law school traditionally did not admit many minorities. In the cases of Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger, the issue of race was considered acceptable in one scenario but not in another. Jennifer Gratz was denied admission to the University of Michigan’s undergraduate program in 1995, and in 1997 Barbara Grutter was denied admission to the university’s law school. Both women were white, and they claimed that the university’s admissions program discriminated against white students. The university was using a point system for undergraduate admissions, assigning extra points to what it considered “under-represented” racial and ethnic minorities. Since it also assigned extra points to athletes, children of alumni, and men enrolling in the nursing school, the university felt there was nothing problematic with assigning points for race as well. The law school did not have a point system, but it did use race used as a determining factor because, the university maintained, it helped promote cross-racial understanding. In 2003 the U.S. Supreme Court voted 6-3 to strike down the undergraduate point system, but it upheld the law school’s less rigid program in a 5-4 vote. In so doing, the courts acknowledged that race could be a factor in admissions, but only one of several of equal weight.