The Council for Racial and Ethnic Ministries voiced the need for vigilance on affirmative action on Monday, June 24, as the Supreme Court sidestepped a broad ruling on the issue with its decision on a case involving race and college admissions. COREM is a ministry of the United Church of Christ dedicated to racial justice issues.
"COREM affirms the continued need for affirmative action so that qualified, capable and equipped students of color might have access to institutions of higher learning," said the Rev. Marilyn Pagan-Banks, a co-convener of COREM.
The court's ruling, by a 7-1 margin, indicates that public schools can only use affirmative action as a way to diversify their student population as a last resort, but makes it difficult for those schools to use such policies to achieve a diverse student population. The case, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, was sent back to the lower courts for further review.
"The Council for Racial and Economic Justice (COREM) of the United Church of Christ knows and stands by the significance of race being a factor when important decisions, such as admission into institutions of higher education, are being made," said Pagan-Banks. "For people of color, race is not simply 'a factor' — we don't get to 'turn-off' being people of color. There is never a day that goes by that we are not aware that we are not white. And as people of color, we bring our entire communities with us into every situation we face, what we do and what we accomplish. It is what we live and breathe and work with every moment."
The Fisher v. UT-Austin case began as a suit by Abigail Fisher when she sued the school after she was rejected for admission in 2008 as a high school senior, claiming that Texas accepted less-qualified minority students, and that she was rejected because she was white. The University of Texas has about 52,000 students, but only 5 to 6 percent are African-Americans, CNN reported, while the African-American community is about 12 percent of the state's population.
"Given the history and disproportionate number of students denied access solely on the basis of the color of their skin, there is still a huge gap to close," Pagan-Banks said. "When factoring in the growing increase in economic disparities and the affects this has on the education of children in communities of color today—the idea of ever truly 'closing the gap' becomes almost surreal."
Pagan-Banks said the decision to send the case back to the lower courts for "tougher scrutiny" of the university's affirmative action policy was a chance to remind the nation that it isn't truly in a "post-racial era."
"The issue of race must remain on the table and in the rooms where vital decisions are being made," she said. "It is COREM's hope that this conversation will lead to 'tougher scrutiny' of how and where racism and discrimination continue to insidiously and systemically operate—often unnamed and unchallenged."
UCC General Synods (1975, 1977 and 1979) have previously recognized disparities in society – some on the basis of color – and General Synod 1981 passed a resolution on affirmative action. The resolution states, "As a denomination which is committed to Affirmative Action and equality of opportunity for all persons, it is imperative that the United Church of Christ affirms its commitment and continues to implement Affirmative Action policies, procedures and programs in its life."