Case Topics: Affirmative Action, Equal Protection

" . . . Race or ethnic background may be deemed a "plus" in a particular applicant's file, yet it does not insulate the individual from comparison with all other candidates for the available seats." — Justice Powell, Speaking for the Court

In the early 1970s, the medical school of the University of California at Davis devised a dual admissions program to increase representation of disadvantaged minority students. Allan Bakke was a white male who applied to and was rejected from the regular admissions program, while minority applicants with lower grade point averages and testing scores were admitted under the specialty admissions program. Bakke filed suit, alleging that this admissions system violated the Equal Protection Clause and excluded him on the basis of race. The Supreme Court found for Bakke against the rigid use of racial quotas, but also established that race was a permissible criteria among several others.

About the materials

These materials were developed for students of various skill levels, and teachers should choose the level that works best for their students. Answers to the background questions, vocabulary, and activities can be found in the "Answers & Differentiation Ideas" tab under each case.

Background summary and questions to consider (by reading level)

Important vocabulary (by reading level)

Legal Concepts

Other useful background information


The Case

After the Case

* See the "Answers & Differentiation Ideas tab for access to answers to the background questions, vocabulary, and activities.

Teaching strategies used

Planning time and activities

If you have one day . . .

If you have two days . . .

If you have three days . . .

If you have four days . . .

  • Complete all of the activities suggested for the first, second and third days.
  • Have students read and react to the following selection: An Ode to Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr.: The Supreme Court Approves The Consideration of Race as a Factor in Admissions by Public Institutions of Higher Education (from Duke Law's Supreme Court Online).
  • In a follow-up discussion, focus on the following: "Justice O'Connor expressed the hope that twenty-five years from now race-conscious admissions will not be necessary." Do you agree or disagree?
  • Explain to students that although the Michigan affirmative action cases held that certain forms of affirmative action policies are permissible under the 14th Amendment, the Constitution does not compel the use of race as a factor in admissions to promote diversity. Prior to the Michigan cases, several states had moved toward race-neutral admissions policies. Have students examine the article 'Race-Neutral' University Admissions in Spotlight (from the Los Angeles Times) and consider reasons for the problems that race neutral policies have encountered. Ask students: Are there alternatives to affirmative action admissions policies that may promote diversity in higher education? If so, what are they?
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