Not enough progress has been made toward racial equality in education, said former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor at Harvard Law School. She called for the continuation of race-based affirmative action, in her keynote address at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute's October conference, "Charting New Pathways to Participation & Membership."
In 2003, O'Connor penned the influential majority opinions in the Court's Gratz and Grutter cases, which addressed the use of affirmative action in admissions policies for the University of Michigan's undergraduate and law school programs.
In Gratz v. Bollinger, the Court ruled that the University of Michigan's point system for considering race was unconstitutional because it was too restrictive. But in Grutter v. Bollinger, the Court upheld the University of Michigan Law School's policy of taking race into account, noting that race was just one among several kinds of diversity considered in admissions.
In her keynote, O'Connor said that the Court did not expect the decision in Grutter to be permanent law, but rather a temporary bandage for a problem that would soon be repaired. But, she said, "in today's America, I'm inclined to think that race still matters in painful ways."
In the time since the Gratz and Grutter decisions were handed down, O'Connor said, there has not been enough attention given to the issue of diversity in education. "I frankly haven't seen enormous changes in this country in the last five years," she said.
O'Connor discussed state constitutional changes that have put up barriers to affirmative action policies at state universities. California and Washington, among other states, have adopted laws that O'Connor said have not helped minorities get into top schools in those states.
She also cited statistics indicating that more black men have emerged from prison than have graduated from high school.
O'Connor emphasized the importance of greater equality in education, saying there is still a long way to go.