Common Interpretation

The Equal Protection Clause


Ratified as it was after the Civil War in 1868, there is little doubt what the Equal Protection Clause was intended to do: stop states from discriminating against blacks. But the text of the Clause is worded very broadly and it has come a long way from its original purpose. For example, despite its reference to “state[s],” the Clause has been read into the Fifth Amendment to prevent the federal government from discriminating as well.

Near the end of the nineteenth century, the Court considered whether racial segregation by the government violated the Constitution. If people were separated into different facilities by race, but those facilities were purportedly equally suitable, did that constitute discrimination? Historians have debated whether the Fourteenth Amendment was intended to end such segregation, but in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Court ruled by a 7-1 vote that so-called “separate but equal” facilities (in that case, train cars) for blacks and whites did not violate the Equal Protection Clause. The decision cemented into place racist Jim Crow-era laws. In a famous dissent, Justice John Marshall Harlan disagreed, stating “[o]ur Constitution is color-blind . . . .”  Plessy remained the law of the land until 1954, when it was overruled in Brown v. Board of Education. The Supreme Court unanimously overruled the reasoning of Plessy and held that separate schools for blacks and whites violated the Equal Protection Clause. Brown was a decisive turning point in a decades-long struggle to dismantle governmentally imposed segregation, not only in schools but throughout American society. Brown was a turning point, but it was not the end of the struggle. For example, it was not until 1967 in Loving v. Virginia that the Supreme Court held that laws prohibiting interracial marriages violated Equal Protection.

Although the original purpose was to protect blacks from discrimination, the broad wording has led  the Supreme Court to hold that all racial discrimination (including against whites, Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans) is constitutionally suspect. These holdings have led to an ongoing debate for the last several decades over whether it is unconstitutional for governments to consider the race of blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans as a positive factor in university admissions, employment, and government contracting. We will address this question in our separate statements.

The Supreme Court has also used the Equal Protection Clause to prohibit discrimination on other bases besides race. Most laws are assessed under so-called “rational basis scrutiny.” Here, any plausible and legitimate reason for the discrimination is sufficient to render it constitutional. But laws that rely on so-called “suspect classifications” are assessed under “heightened scrutiny.” Here, the government must have important or compelling reasons to justify the discrimination, and the discrimination must be carefully tailored to serve those reasons. What types of classifications are “suspect”? In light of the history of the Equal Protection Clause, it is no surprise that race and national origin are suspect classifications. But the Court has also held that gender, immigration status, and wedlock status at birth qualify as suspect classifications. The Court has rejected arguments that age and poverty should be elevated to suspect classifications.

One of the greatest controversies regarding the Equal Protection Clause today is whether the Court should find that sexual orientation is a suspect classification. In its recent same-sex marriage opinion, Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), the Court suggested that discrimination against gays and lesbians can violate the Equal Protection Clause. But the Court did not decide what level of scrutiny should apply, leaving this question for another day.

Like many constitutional provisions, the Equal Protection Clause continues to be in flux.

Matters of Debate

The Future of Racial Preferences


As we mentioned in the joint statement, one of the most contentious questions under the Equal Protection Clause has been whether programs known as “affirmative action” or “racial preferences” are constitutional. Racial preference programs give a leg up to blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans in college admissions, employment, and winning government contracts. They have been constitutionally contentious ever since they began in the 1960s, and many people believe that the Supreme Court is poised to end these programs in the near future.

Although well-intended to atone for past racial discrimination and to spread opportunity more equally throughout society, many people believe that preference programs are morally questionable, have bred racial tensions, and stigmatize the people they are intended to help. One might ask what relevance moral and empirical arguments like these have to the meaning of the Equal Protection Clause, but arguments like these have influenced the Supreme Court’s decisions in this area much more than arguments over the original understanding of the Equal Protection Clause (on which historians disagree). Indeed, new empirical arguments are the reason why many people believe racial preference programs may not survive court challenges for much longer.

First, some people believe that the individuals who take opportunities on account of racial preferences are actually wealthier than those who are displaced. This has undermined the notion that racial preferences spread opportunity more equally throughout society. Second, it has become increasingly clear that the racial group that suffers the most from many preference programs—especially those in college admissions—is not whites, but Asians. Because Asians, too, suffered from a great deal of past discrimination in this county, this development has weakened the notion that preference programs atone for past discrimination. Finally, there are now sophisticated empirical studies that suggest that preference programs actually constrict opportunities for their intended beneficiaries; some studies, for example, suggest that there are fewer black lawyers today because of preferences for blacks in law school admissions. Other scholars disagree with these studies, but the studies have nonetheless raised many questions about whether preference programs accomplish even their most basic purpose of expanding opportunities for blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans.

Some proponents of racial preferences have advocated so-called “race neutral” affirmative action in the event the Supreme Court eventually prohibits racial preferences.  Indeed, some universities have turned to race-neutral affirmative action after lower courts struck down their preference programs. Under race-neutral affirmative action, governments use preferences for characteristics that correlate with race instead of race itself to try to increase opportunities for blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans. Thus, for example, some state universities give preferences to applicants who live in certain areas that are heavily comprised by those racial groups (but whites or Asians who live in these areas receive the preferences, too). Many people assume these programs are constitutional because they do not rely on racial classifications but on geographic classifications. But the Supreme Court has said in many cases that non-racial classifications that are motivated by racial discrimination and have the effect of racial discrimination are subjected to the same heightened scrutiny as racial classifications. Thus, it is not clear whether race-neutral affirmative action will be any more constitutional than racial preference programs.

What is clear is that this will be an area of very contentious litigation for the foreseeable future.

Matters of Debate

The Unfinished Work of the Equal Protection Clause


At the core of the debate on the Equal Protection Clause’s application to race is the question of symmetry. Some people oppose race-conscious measures designed to address racial discrimination and inequality. For example, some individuals oppose efforts by schools and employers to consider race with the goal of enrolling or hiring more minority applicants. In arguing that these measures violate the Fourteenth Amendment, opponents equate such efforts with invidious discrimination rooted in belief in racial inferiority and superiority.

In 1978, in  Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the Supreme Court found that race-conscious measures designed to address the effects of discrimination were as presumptively unconstitutional as was discrimination rooted in racial antipathy and the belief in racial inferiority. The Court further recognized what it called “societal discrimination”, i.e., a category of discrimination, however lamentable, for which no one was responsible and for which there is no remedy. Before Bakke, racial equality efforts had been justified based on a general imperative to overcome the lasting effects of historic racial discrimination and subordination. Bakke and subsequent cases effectively limited this remedial justification imperative to individual cases of proven discrimination. It threw the remedial rationale under the bus, leaving vast manifestations of racial inequality beyond the reach of law.

Still, Justice Powell proffered an alternative ground for race-conscious admissions by colleges and universities. His opinion in Bakke recognizing “diversity” as a compelling governmental interest bridged a divided Court. It rested diversity in universities’ First Amendment-based interest in academic freedom, rather than in the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection-based interest of African Americans and other people of color in educational opportunity at institutions from which they had long been excluded. In spite of the Fourteenth Amendment’s original purposes—and notwithstanding continued racial inequality in higher education—a majority of the Bakke Court held that the Amendment had no special meaning for African Americans.

In the years following Bakke, students of color were admitted to selective colleges and universities in modest numbers, even if Bakke’s viability was under continued criticism and attack in social discourse as well as in the courts. In 2003, Grutter v. Bollinger upheld a race-conscious admissions program at a public law school. The Grutter majority garnered 5 votes for Powell’s diversity rationale, mooting a long running argument that it had never commanded five votes. Still, as diversity opponents have sensed that the Court has become more conservative, they have refused to accept what should be settled law and have instead continued to bring challenges to Bakke/Grutter. Anti-diversity advocates are no doubt encouraged by the Supreme Court’s 2007 decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, which invalidated voluntary, and by their nature, race-conscious, public school desegregation efforts in Seattle and in Louisville.

There is no question that the Fourteenth Amendment, by its own terms, applies to all people. Still, there is great irony in the fact that many of the effects of systemic and intergenerational racial discrimination, especially as visited upon African Americans, remain intact, even in “The Age of Obama.” The Court has placed them beyond the reach of law. There is further irony in the fact that long after the Court has abandoned Brown’s imperative, even voluntary desegregation efforts have been found to constitute racial discrimination.

At a Harvard Law School symposium some years ago commemorating the occasion of the one hundredth anniversary of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), I struggled to articulate the duality of the Fourteenth Amendment: its original purpose and imperative was undeniably directed at remedying discrimination against African Americans. And yet the Amendment was meant to protect all from unequal treatment under the law. One purpose does not negate the other. As Judge Guido Calabresi put it on that occasion, there are two Fourteenth Amendments: the Fourteenth Amendment for all, and the Fourteenth Amendment that holds the Thirteenth Amendment inside of it. That is not to say that the Thirteenth Amendment does not apply to all; it bans slavery and involuntary servitude from existing anywhere within the United States. But that part of the Thirteenth Amendment that aimed to wipe away the badges and incidents of slavery had significance for one people. The Equal Protection Clause’s duality is evidenced by the fact that the Framers of the Fourteenth Amendment adopted all manners of race-conscious measures specifically for black Americans: the Freedman’s Bureau, schools, hospitals, banks, and land. The notion that mere race-consciousness, whatever its intent, was inconsistent with the Fourteenth Amendment is unsupported by history. 

Lest we think that these facts have no contemporary significance, it bears remembrance that legalized subordination of African Americans did not end with the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, or even in 1868 with the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment. It was a continuum which only began to end with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and the Civil Rights Era legislation and jurisprudence of the 1960s. Bakke’s assault on the remedial imperative began a mere ten years after the beginning of the end of the subordination continuum. Even today, since the involuntary arrival of African Americans began in what is now the United States, nine out of every ten of their days have been spent in slavery and Jim Crow segregation, as have eight of every ten days since the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Jurisprudence and discourse that disembodies present day racial inequality from our history of legally imposed racial subordination is either tone deaf to history or intellectually dishonest, as is the notion that there is moral or legal symmetry between efforts to address the effects of that history, on the one hand, and invidious discrimination, on the other. The Fourteenth Amendment continues to call to us. Even while it has other, no less important, work to do, it its original work is unfinished.

Matters of Debate

More about the 14th Amendment

The Drafting Table

Explore key historical documents that inspired the Framers of the Constitution and each amendment during the drafting process, the early drafts and major proposals behind each provision, and discover how the drafters deliberated, agreed and disagreed, on the path to compromise and the final text.

In the Classroom

Teach the Constitution in your classroom with nonpartisan resources including videos, lesson plans, podcasts, and more. Check out our classroom resources organized by each article or amendment, and by key constitutional questions.

Media Library: the 14th Amendment

Blog Post

Remembering the Supreme Court’s first dissenter

On December 27, 1771, future Supreme Court Justice William Johnson, Jr., was born in South Carolina. Johnson has attracted a…

Dec 27

Educational Video

Baker v. Carr

A deep dive into Baker v. Carr, a Supreme Court case concerning equality in voting districts. Decided in 1962, the ruling…

More from the National Constitution Center

Carry the Constitution in Your Pocket! Download the App

The Interactive Constitution is available as a free app on your mobile device.

Visit the National Constitution Center

Find out about upcoming programs, exhibits, and educational initiatives on the National Constitution Center’s website.

Support the Interactive Constitution

The National Constitution is a private nonprofit. Please support our educational mission of increasing awareness and understanding of the U.S. Constitution.