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In the 1970s, the University of California-Davis Medical School reserved 16 out of the 100 spaces from each incoming class for its special admissions program. The special admissions program was intended to benefit minority and economically disadvantaged students. Although white students were permitted to apply through the special program, none had gained admission that way.
Allan Bakke, a white man from a middle-class background, applied through the school’s standard admissions policy. Bakke was denied admission two years in a row. Meanwhile, students with lower test scores were accepted through the special-admissions program.
Bakke filed suit, arguing that the university’s quota system for minority students violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The United States Supreme Court took up the case of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 (1978).
The main question was whether public institutions of higher education could consider race in making admissions decisions without running afoul of the Constitution. The Court was sharply divided, but four justices agreed that the admissions program was discriminatory.
Racial classifications, even those designed to remedy discrimination and benefit minorities, are subject to strict scrutiny. Ultimately, the admissions program did not survive that test.
Bakke was a landmark case that effectively ended the use of racial quota systems for affirmative-action purposes. However, some 25 years later, the Court upheld a law-school admissions policy that considered race as merely one factor among many.