The Supreme Court is preparing to tackle two pivotal legal issues with racial implications, with one issue occurring in higher education. It centers on whether race preferences in university admissions undermine equal opportunity more than they promote the benefits of racial diversity.

Just this past week, justices signaled their interest in scrutinizing affirmative action very intensely, expanding their review as well to a Michigan law passed by voters that bars “preferential treatment” to students based on race. Separately in a second case, the court must decide whether race relations — in the South, particularly — have improved to the point that federal laws protecting minority voting rights are no longer warranted.

The questions are apt as the United States closes in on a demographic tipping point, when nonwhites will become a majority of the nation’s population for the first time. That dramatic shift is expected to be reached within the next generation, and how the Supreme Court rules could go a long way in determining what civil rights and equality mean in an America long divided by race.

To Bradley Poole, 21, a senior at the University of Texas at Austin, racial progress is measured by the little things. An advertising major, Poole became a member and then president of the school’s Black Student Alliance, seeking camaraderie after noticing he often was the only African-American in his classes.

“I definitely feel the difference,” he said.

The university automatically grants admission to the top 10 percent of students in each of the state’s high schools. That helps bring in students of different backgrounds because Texas high schools are highly racially segregated, reflecting decades of segregated neighborhoods.

(Next page: More on diversity in schools across the nation)


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