Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


University of California Regents v. Allan Bakke

In 1978, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down its anticipated decision in the case of the University of California Regents v. Allan Bakke. There were several cases dealing with the issue of race and education which preceded this case, however, Bakke was the first in which the judicial system was asked to resolve the issue of affirmative action. The decision handed out by the high court was ambiguous and, although temporarily solved that particular case, did very little to resolve the problem or set a precedence for future cases dealing with the same difficult issue. That decision, or lack thereof, helped create the current situation and the intense public debate over affirmative action.

In the 1950's, the judicial system faced many challenges to the segregated school systems that were declared constitutionally legal. In 1954, the Supreme Court delivered it's landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education declaring institutionalized segregation illegal and overturning the idea of "separate but equal." This case dramatically changed the face of the education system in the United States. Beginning with Brown, the Supreme Court and the government, led a campaign to reverse the discrimination and segregation of the past. The campaign culminated in 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. This Act created a variety of programs designed to advance and promote minorities across the nation. Included was the idea of affirmative action. At the time of its creation, most Americans felt that affirmative action was a beneficial program and a positive step for the country in an effort to erase the past.

However, by the mid-seventies, that attitude had changed and the Bakke case represented the feelings of many Americans, particularly white Americans. They felt that the programs created a decade earlier to build a more equal society were now giving unfair opportunities and advantages to minorities. The backlash against much of the legislation of remediation continued throughout the seventies and eighties with little change or resolution to the problem.

In 1996, the debate over affirmative action was as intense as ever, clearly evident from the importance both presidential candidates gave the issue. The issue was challenged by politicians and in courtrooms around the country. Nowhere was the issue as important as in California, where in the last two years, the government has done considerable work to repeal affirmative action and any kind or race based programs. The UC Regents radically changed their admission policies in 1995 and in 1997 that the university will not take race into consideration in admissions. Proposition 209 eliminated all preferential programs throughout the state. The federal judicial system has also taken steps to reduce some of its affirmative action policies. This was a direct result of the conservative appointments made to the federal court system during the Reagan and Bush administrations.

Obviously much has changed since the Bakke decision was handed out in 1978. However, despite the many changes, a resolution to the issue has yet to be found. The Bakke case brought the issue and constitutionality of affirmative action to the forefront. However, the court's failure to resolve the issue has continued the debate for almost twenty years.

For More Information:
University of California Regents v. Bakke


Dentler, Robert and Scott, Marvin; Schools on Trial. Abt Books, Cambridge, MA, 1981.

Dreyfuss, Joel and Lawrence, Charles III; The Bakke Case. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1979.

United States Commission on Civil Rights; Towards an Understanding of Bakke. Cleaninghouse Publication, 1977.

Prepared by Jason Unger (UCLA)

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