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The Bakke Case and the Status of Affirmative Action in 1978

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Protesters march around the Detroit federal building during Supreme Court deliberations on the Allan Bakke case, October 3, 1977.

From the late 1960s on, local governments and businesses attempted to level the economic playing field through a set of assistance programs for minorities known as Affirmative Action. Although opponents claimed that Affirmative Action gave minorities an unfair advantage, those in favor argued that the strategy reduced the towering advantages of patronage, exclusive experience and economic power that whites had enjoyed for centuries. In 1974, Allan Bakke, a white applicant to medical school, sued the University of California, claiming that he had suffered discrimination when less qualified minority students were given places in the medical school class that rejected him. The case went to the Supreme Court.

Bakke's lawyer argued that constitutional rights were meant for individuals and not for racial groups. In June 1978, the nine justices of the Supreme Court handed down six separate opinions. Some of the justices felt that race should not be used in the admissions process while others felt that race was a legitimate factor. The Court ruled that the school's application system was unconstitutional. However, the decision written by Associate Justice Lewis Powell also held that race could be used as a factor in admissions.

Because of the number of opinions in the case, the legal status of Affirmative Action continues to be debated. In 2003, the Supreme Court reaffirmed Powell's core holding that race could be considered in the admissions policy of the University of Michigan law school.

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