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Eyes on the Prize
The Story of the Movement — 26 Events

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The Bakke Case and Affirmative Action


"If in fact women, blacks, Hispanics, have been excluded... how do you include them?"
—Eleanor Holmes Norton, chair, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

Related Links:

  • Read President Lyndon Johnson's speech from 1965 on equal opportunity.
  • See two viewpoints on affirmative action.
  • Frontline offers a summary of important court rulings on race sensitive admissions policies.

By the late 1970s, federal affirmative action programs are under attack in higher education. After a decade in practice, the policies have doubled the number of black students attending colleges and universities. Yet some white applicants who are denied admission blame affirmative action for their troubles. In 1978, the Supreme Court hears a case filed by Allan Bakke, a man who has twice been denied admission to the University of California at Davis for medical school. He claims that affirmative action policies have kept him out, violating his rights. The case commands the nation's attention.

The court's decision is not clear-cut. It rules that Bakke should be admitted to Davis, and it states that affirmative action is permissible but not mandatory. For some Americans, the case is proof that the cost of remedying years of discrimination and inequities through affirmative action is too high. But for others, like Dr. Toni Johnson-Chavis, an African American woman who is admitted to Davis and goes on to practice in a minority community, there is no doubt that the policies make a positive impact not only on the student, but also on the black community.


Other Events: 1978

Two popes die within a few months of each other. The third of the year, John Paul II, will become a major influence on the Catholic Church and world politics over the next two and a half decades.

The Bee Gees' "Saturday Night Fever" album becomes the soundtrack of the nation, selling 12 million copies.

The Treasures of Tuthankhamun, a blockbuster exhibit that opened at the Metropolitan Museum in 1976, tours museums across the United States.

President Jimmy Carter hosts Israeli leader Menachem Begin and Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat at Camp David and brokers a historic peace accord between the two Middle Eastern nations.

Serial killer Ted Bundy is caught in Florida. In New York, David Berkowitz, another killer known as "Son of Sam," is given a prison term of six life sentences for his crimes.

The first test tube baby, Louise Brown, is born in England.

Leon Spinks defeats Muhammad Ali for the world heavyweight boxing title, but Ali wins it back later in the year.


The Louisville Courier-Journal, June 30, 1978

Editorial: Bakke Case Isn't Last Word on Racial Preference Issue

...A five-member majority concluded that Allan Bakke's civil rights were violated when he was refused admission to the University of California Medical College at Davis. Mr. Bakke, a white, wasn't sufficiently well qualified to be accepted by the college under its regular admissions program. But his undergraduate record and test scores were superior to those of most or all of the students admitted under a special admissions program for racial minorities. The Court therefore ordered that he be admitted.

But the Court also ruled, again 5-to-4, with Justice Lewis Powell switching sides, that race is one of many legitimate considerations in college admissions...

...Justice Powell's comments on the dangers of racial quotas are broad enough and make considerable sense. He noted that the white "majority" in this nation "is composed of various minority groups, most of which can lay claim to a history of prior discrimination at the hands of the state and private individuals. Not all of these groups can receive preferential treatment... for then the only 'majority' left would be a new minority of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. There is no principled basis for deciding which groups would merit 'heightened judicial solicitude' and which would not..."

...Yet there is also a compelling need, recognized by most Americans, to eliminate the vestiges of racial segregation and to compensate for past and continuing injustices. ..

The Tri-State Defender (Memphis, Tennessee), July 8, 1978

Editorial: A Racist Decision

...The court decision was not based on broad constitutional principles. It was a narrow opinion which explores neither the rationale nor implications of a special admission system for the underprivileged. It shows beyond the shadow of a doubt that this court has kept faith with the Nixon anti-racial predilection.

By their action, the justices give the concept of reverse discrimination a legal entity that will take years to undress. It is a terrific blow to affirmative action and its corollary -- the quota enumeration. The impact of the Bakke decision will be felt in employment, in housing and even in public school racial imbalance. The ground on which rested the logic of these developments has been eroded...

The Chicago Tribune, July 8, 1978

Letter to the Editor

Those lauding the Bakke decision assume that a clear distinction exists between affirmative action and reverse discrimination. The difference, however, is like the difference between a sanitation engineer and a janitor; more theoretical than real...

... when race is a criterion for advancement, how can preference and discrimination based upon race be avoided?...

...Let me suggest that it is more than a fringe group in this country that rejects reverse discrimination as a public policy and believes that qualifications -- not race -- should be the basis for advancement...

Paul D. Froehlich
La Grange Park, Illinois

The Chicago Tribune, July 8, 1978

Voice of the People: The Bakke Decision

The Supreme Court decision in the Bake case deserves the support of all Americans. The court very properly ruled against arbitrary quotas as a solution to the problem of discrimination in our society...

...The underlying problem remains how to assist minorities prior to their entering colleges and graduate schools, so that they will be better trained, more capable of competing as individuals, without the need for affirmative action programs. This requires a massive commitment on the part of our society to overcome the lingering results of centuries of discrimination.

Robert S. Jacobs
President, Chicago Chapter of the American Jewish Committee

The Chicago Tribune, July 29, 1978

Voice of the People: Affirmative Action Called 'Unjust'

...Aside from the gross injustices which this system has fostered against tens of thousands by instituting the presumption of an equality of deprivation on favored classes of minorities and women, it has demoralized much of the workforce, and established a veritable industry of bureaucratic enforcement with a strong vested interest in the maintenance of ethno-racial and sexual jealousies and antagonisms...

...Affirmative action is a creation of the white liberal establishment which the non-white population can ill afford. But establishing a system of injustice against white majority individuals can only demean the aspirations of non-whites as well as maintain a new system of Reconstructionist segregation...

...It is not the rapidly attenuating vestiges of ethno-racial bigotry and the temporary economic disproportions existing between demographically varied groups which will haunt the future of American society, but the systematic racism of quotas...

Richard R. Solomon
Executive Director, Movement to End Racial Injustice and Tyranny
Seattle, Washington


The Bakke Case and Affirmative Action
Duration: 1:57 min
Watch the Video

Clips from a news report begin with Walter Cronkite describing the Bakke case.

Next is a clip from an interview with Dr. Toni Johnson, a member of the medical school class to which Bakke was denied admission, describing the racism and other obstacles she had to overcome to become a doctor.

Footage provided by BBC MOTION GALLERY.

Select an image to open the gallery.

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