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The Bakke Case

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

This book is an extraordinarily lucid and perceptive account that analyzes more than the legal dimensions of this landmark case. Of the copious writing that has been done on the Bakke case, it is one of the few that gets close to the principals in this legal drama and probes underlying human and societal issues shrouded by convoluted trial arguments and tactics. The authors brilliantly contend that “reverse discrimination” and race were not the fundamental issues. Rather, the broader questions were the increasingly limited number of career opportunities offered to the middle class, the fierce competition for access to those available, and the growing consensus among white Americans that the nation’s once rampant racial inequality had been resolved.

Allan Bakke’s case was simple and direct. He argued that the University of California at Davis Medical School, in an attempt to correct racial injustices of the segregated past, had set aside sixteen places in each entering class for members of minority groups. Because he was white, Bakke was prevented from competing for those sixteen places. He contended that because his grades and test scores were higher than those of many minority students, he was better qualified to become a physician; but his aspirations had been thwarted by the issue of color.

Thus, the Bakke case posed a serious dilemma for America’s white majority. It represented a confrontation of two basic concepts: equality as a theoretical right and equality as a reality. To make a place for those held back for generations by discrimination, some members of the majority would have to give way. To critics of affirmative action, this “reverse discrimination” was simply unjust; but to do nothing was to sentence entire generations of black, brown, and poor people to suffer permanently the effects of inequality.

The authors present the case on several levels. They attempt to describe the key characters in the drama, namely the attorneys who represent the case’s respective sides. This biographical-journalistic dimension is supplemented by a firm grasp of the facts in the case and the trial strategies adopted by the contending parties. Finally, Dreyfuss and Lawrence probe the large societal issues raised by the case and reflect upon the changes in American racial dynamics during the 1970’s.

The first one-third section of the book is the strongest; it details the case through its review by the California Supreme Court. The author’s prodigious research unearthed some intriguing, thought-provoking aspects of its history. For example, the authors reveal that Peter Storandt, the university’s thirty-year-old Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs, had a central role early in the drama. His meetings with Bakke and their exchange of letters no doubt encouraged the prospective student to sue. He provided a sympathetic ear, crucial information about the school’s admission procedures, and important advice on the legal strategy Bakke would follow thereafter.

The authors’ tedious analysis of the school’s admissions policies and procedures point out the arbitrariness and subjectivity of the system. The ramu-lose procedure may in fact have discriminated against Bakke on the basis of his age (Bakke was in his early thirties when he applied). Furthermore, the dean, in deference to political and class considerations, could override the procedure and virtually admit whom he wanted. It is unfortunate that the authors do not further explore the inequities in the school’s admissions.

The authors also offer some titillating criticism of the handling of the case by the university’s attorneys. The lawyers were seemingly hampered by an ambivalence about the central issues. Reynold Colvin, Bakke’s talented and homespun Jewish lawyer, is given high marks for his shrewd handling of the case and his dogged devotion to his client’s fundamental interest. It is clear from the book that Bakke’s decision to sue was based upon a genuine...

(The entire section is 1,521 words.)