Over half a century ago, President John F. Kennedy introduced the term “affirmative action,” to address discrimination tactics in both the education system and the workplace, despite passage of civil rights laws and constitutional guarantees.
Affirmative action policies required active measures be taken to ensure that blacks and other minorities enjoyed the same opportunities for school admissions, financial aid, promotions, salary increases, and career advancements as their Caucasian counterparts. From its inception, affirmative action was viewed as temporary relief to create a level playing field for people of all races.
This month, the U.S. Supreme Court is weighing affirmative action as it applies to college admission standards via the case of Fisher vs. University of Texas.
According to a report in Salon.com, Abigail Noel Fisher – a white woman – applied to the university in 2008 and was denied admission. She did not graduate in the top 10 percent of her high school class, a factor that could have guaranteed her admission. Since she did not make the grade, she had to compete with other applicants – all of whom were considered for admission based on talent, financial circumstance and race.
Fisher took her denial as a sign of racial discrimination and sued the university. The case has since wended its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which last considered an affirmative action case in 2003. In that particular case, Grutter vs. Bollinger, the court ruled that racial quotas could be applied, but a student’s race could not be weighted more heavily than any other factor during the admission process.
Fisher’s case alleges UT practices make race a dominant factor, thereby surpassing the standards set out in the previous case.
As Tahlequah is the heart of the Cherokee Nation and home to an all-Native American high school, Sequoyah, tribal citizens and educators are watching the case with keen interest.
According to Cherokee Nation Executive Director of Education Dr. Neil Morton, more than 70 percent of Sequoyah graduating seniors pursue a college education. The average enrollment at the school is 380.
Morton believes affirmative action provides a necessary function when it comes to educating minorities.
“Affirmative action provides some redress to centuries of injustices imposed by all levels of government against minority populations,” said Morton. “Leveling the playing field for college admission is a positive action for our students at Sequoyah High School from two basic vantage points: [first], the students’ goals and aspirations are broadened to a new level of thinking that encompasses an attitude of ‘hey, this is available for me,’ and [second], gaining admission and completing a professional field of study at a prestigious school permits the Cherokee students to ‘come home’ to the Cherokee Nation to take leadership roles in service to their people.”
Morton pointed out the success experienced by Sequoyah students who enter college at the rate exceeding 70 percent of each graduating class “is a prime example of affirmative action at work.”
The U.S. Supreme Court is not the only body considering the efficacy and necessity of affirmative action. Oklahoma voters will determine its fate when visiting the voting booth Nov. 6.
If approved, State Question 759 would add a new section to the Oklahoma Constitution banning government affirmative action programs in the state when it comes to public employment, education and contracts.
In a recent Daily Press report, Northeastern State University President Dr. Steve Turner indicated the university not only appreciates, but expects, a diverse work force. He mentioned Fisher vs. University of Texas at Austin.
“In this case, a student claims she was denied admissions based on other racial quotas,” said Turner. “It seems that affirmative action and its application will be decided by the Supreme Court very soon. I will watch for the outcomes of the national and state debates and make sure the employment and admission processes at NSU follow the law.”
Morton declined to comment on the possibility of the Cherokee Nation’s pursuing legal action should the measure be repealed or limited in the Supreme Court’s decision.
“We prefer not to speculate on hypothetical situations,” said Morton.
Sequoyah High School’s student enrollment is just a portion of the tribe’s citizen-students. Morton said the tribe is committed to providing guidance and financial assistance to all Cherokees students pursuing post-secondary education.
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