Equal Protection and Affirmative Action

Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978)

Case background and primary source documents concerning the Supreme Court case of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. Dealing with the principle of Equal Protection and affirmative action, this lesson asks students to asses whether or not the  University of California at Davis’s special admissions program resulted in unconstitutional reverse discrimination.

Founding Principles

Equal Protection image

Equal Protection

The principle of equal justice under law means that every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law. There are no individuals or groups who are born with the right to rule over others.

Equality image

Equality

Every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law.

Case Background

The phrase “affirmative action” first appeared in a 1961 executive order by President John F. Kennedy, barring federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of race, creed, color, or national origin. President Lyndon B. Johnson echoed this phrasing in his own policies and speeches. Congress later passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, barring discrimination by any institutions receiving federal money.

The University of California at Davis Medical School, a public school, was founded in 1966. The first class of fifty students was made up of forty-seven white students and three of Asian descent. In order to achieve a more racially diverse student body, in 1970 the University took what it described as affirmative action by creating two separate admissions programs. The general program required a 2.5 GPA, an interview, letters of recommendation, and test scores. The special program, for which only disadvantaged members of minority groups were eligible, had no GPA cutoff.

By 1973, the class size had doubled to 100, and of those 100 spaces, sixteen were reserved for minority applicants in the special program. Applicants to the special program competed only against each other for admission, and did not compete against applicants to the general admissions program.

Allan Bakke, a Caucasian, applied twice to the medical school, and was rejected both times. His GPA and test scores, however, were higher than those of any of the students accepted into the special program. He sued the school, charging that the special admissions program amounted to a quota system that discriminated against whites.


Is affirmative action a violation of equality? This Homework Help video on the case of University of California Regents v. Bakke asks students to consider this question.

Key Question

Appraise the claim that the University of California at Davis special admissions program resulted in unconstitutional reverse discrimination.

Directions

Read the Case Background and Key Question. Then analyze Documents A-M. Finally, answer the Key Question in a well-organized essay that incorporates your interpretations of Documents A-M, as well as your own knowledge of history.

Materials

Documents you will examine:

  1. Section of the Fourteenth Amendment, 1868
  2. Executive Order 10925, 1961
  3. “Civil Rights Legislation,” 1963
  4. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
  5. President Lyndon Johnson, Speech at Howard University, 1965
  6. Program Demographics, 1970-1974
  7. Education by Race Statistics, 1940-1980
  8. Alan Bakke’s Credentials, 1973-1974
  9. UC-Davis’s Reply to Bakke’s Query on Age, 1972
  10. Oral Arguments, 1978
  11. Justice Thurgood Marshall’s Memo, 1978
  12. Plurality Decision (5-4), Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 1978
  13. Justice Marshall’s Separate Opinion, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 1978

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