Metro Broadcasting, Inc. v. FCC (89-453), 497 U.S. 547 (1990)
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Nos. 89-453 and 89-700



on writs of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the district of columbia circuit

[June 27, 1990]

Justice Kennedy, with whom Justice Scalia joins, dissenting.

Almost 100 years ago in Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), this Court upheld a government-sponsored race-conscious measure, a Louisiana law that required "equal but separate accommodations" for "white" and "colored" railroad passengers. The Court asked whether the measures were "reasonable," and it stated that "[i]n determining the question of reasonableness, [the legislature] is at liberty to act with reference to the established usages, customs and traditions of the people, and with a view to the promotion of their comfort." Id., at 550. The Plessy Court concluded that the "race-conscious measures" it reviewed were reasonable because they served the governmental interest of increasing the riding pleasure of railroad passengers. The fundamental errors in Plessy, its standard of review and its validation of rank racial insult by the State, distorted the law for six decades before the Court announced its apparent demise in Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954). Plessy's standard of review and its explication have disturbing parallels to today's majority opinion that should warn us something is amiss here.

Today the Court grants Congress latitude to employ "benign race-conscious measures ... [that] are not ... designed to compensate victims of past governmental or societal discrimination," but that "serve important governmental objectives ... and are substantially related to achievement of those objectives." Ante, at 13. The interest the Court accepts to uphold the Commission's race-conscious measures is "broadcast diversity." Furthering that interest, we are told, is worth the cost of discriminating among citizens on the basis of race because it will increase the listening pleasure of media audiences. In upholding this preference, the majority exhumes Plessy's deferential approach to racial classifications. The Court abandons even the broad societal remedial justification for racial preferences once advocated by Justice Marshall, e.g., Regents of University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265, 396 (1978) (opinion of Marshall, J.), and now will allow the use of racial classifications by Congress untied to any goal of addressing the effects of past race discrimination. All that need be shown under the new approach, which until now only Justice Stevens had advanced, City of Richmond v. J.A. Croson Co., 488 U.S. 469, (Stevens, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment); Wygant v. Jackson Board of Education, 476 U.S. 267, 313 (1986) (Stevens, J., dissenting), is that the future effect of discriminating among citizens on the basis of race will advance some "important" governmental interest.

Once the Government takes the step, which itself should be forbidden, of enacting into law the stereotypical assumption that the race of owners is linked to broadcast content, it follows a path that becomes ever more tortuous. It must decide which races to favor. While the Court repeatedly refers to the preferences as favoring "minorities," ante, at 3, and purports to evaluate the burdens imposed on "nonminor ities," ante, at 45, it must be emphasized that the discriminatory policies upheld today operate to exclude the many racial and ethnic minorities that have not made the Commission's list. The enumeration of the races to be protected is borrowed from a remedial statute, but since the remedial rationale must be disavowed in order to sustain the policy, the race classifications bear scant relation to the asserted governmental interest. The Court's reasoning provides little justification for welcoming the return of racial classifications to our Nation's laws. [n.1]

I cannot agree with the Court that the Constitution permits the Government to discriminate among its citizens on the basis of race in order to serve interests so trivial as "broadcast diversity." In abandoning strict scrutiny to endorse this interest the Court turns back the clock on the level of scrutiny applicable to federal race-conscious measures. Even strict scrutiny may not have sufficed to invalidate early race based laws of most doubtful validity, as we learned in Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944). But the relaxed standard of review embraced today would validate that case, and any number of future racial classifications the Government may find useful. Strict scrutiny is the surest test the Court has yet devised for holding true to the constitutional command of racial equality. Under our modern precedents, as Justice O'Connor explains, strict scrutiny must be applied to this statute. The approach taken to congressional measures under 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment in Fullilove v. Klutznick, 448 U.S. 448 (1980), even assuming its validity, see Croson, supra, at (opinion of Kennedy, J.), is not applicable to this case.

As to other exercises of congressional power, our cases following Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497 (1954), such as Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, 420 U.S. 636, 638, n.2 (1975), until they were in effect overruled today, had held that the Congress is constrained in its actions by the same standard applicable to the States: strict scrutiny of all racial classifications. The majority cannot achieve its goal of upholding the quotas here under the rigor of this standard, and so must devise an intermediate test. Justice O'Connor demonstrates that this statute could not survive even intermediate scrutiny as it had been understood until today. The majority simply says otherwise, providing little reasoning or real attention to past cases in its opinion of 50 pages.

The Court insists that the programs under review are "benign." Justice Stevens agrees. "[T]he reason for the classification — the recognized interest in broadcast diversity — is clearly identified and does not imply any judgment concerning the abilities of owners of different races or the merits of different kinds of programming. Neither the favored nor the disfavored class is stigmatized in any way." Ante, at 2 (Stevens, J., concurring). [n.2] A fundamental error of the Plessy Court was its similar confidence in its ability to identify "benign" discrimination: "We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff's argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it." 163 U.S., at 551. Although the majority is "confident" that it can determine when racial discrimination is benign, ante, at 13, n.12, it offers no explanation as to how it will do so.

The Court also justifies its result on the ground that "Congress and the Commission have determined that there may be important differences between the broadcasting practices of minority owners and those of their nonminority counterparts." Ante, at 29. The Court is all too correct that the the type of reasoning employed by the Commission and Congress is not novel. Policies of racial separation and preference are almost always justified as benign, even when it is clear to any sensible observer that they are not. The following statement, for example, would fit well among those offered to uphold the Commission's racial preference policy: "The policy is not based on any concept of superiority or inferiority, but merely on the fact that people differ, par ticularly in their group associations, loyalties, cultures, outlook, modes of life and standards of development." See South Africa and the Rule of Law 37 (1968) (official publication of the South African Government).

The history of governmental reliance on race demonstrates that racial policies defended as benign often are not seen that way by the individuals affected by them. Today's dismissive statements aside, a plan of the type sustained here may impose "stigma on its supposed beneficiaries," Croson, 488 U.S., at 516517 (opinion of Stevens, J.), and "foster intolerance and antagonism against the entire membership of the favored classes," Fullilove, 448 U.S., at 547 (Stevens, J., dissenting). Although the majority disclaims it, the FCC policy seems based on the demeaning notion that members of the defined racial groups ascribe to certain "minority views" that must be different from those of other citizens. Special preferences also can foster the view that members of the favored groups are inherently less able to compete on their own. And, rightly or wrongly, special preference programs often are perceived as targets for exploitation by opportunists who seek to take advantage of monetary rewards without advancing the stated policy of minority inclusion. [n.3]

The perceptions of the excluded class must also be weighed, with attention to the cardinal rule that our Constitution protects each citizen as an individual, not as a member of a group. There is the danger that the "stereotypical thinking" that prompts policies such as the FCC rules here "stigmatizes the disadvantaged class with the unproven charge of past racial discrimination." Croson, 488 U.S., at 516 (opinion of Stevens, J.). Whether or not such programs can be described as "remedial," the message conveyed is that it is acceptable to harm a member of the group excluded from the benefit or privilege. If this is to be considered acceptable under the Constitution, there are various possible explanations. One is that the group disadvantaged by the preference should feel no stigma at all, because racial preferences address not the evil of intentional discrimination but the continuing unconscious use of stereotypes that disadvantage minority groups. But this is not a proposition that the many citizens, who to their knowledge "have never discriminated against anyone on the basis of race," ibid., will find easy to accept.

Another explanation might be that the stigma imposed upon the excluded class should be overlooked, either because past wrongs are so grievous that the disfavored class must bear collective blame, or because individual harms are simply irrelevant in the face of efforts to compensate for racial inequalities. But these are not premises that the Court even appears willing to address in its analysis. Until the Court is candid about the existence of stigma imposed by racial preferences on both affected classes, candid about the "animosity and discontent" they create, Fullilove, 448 U.S., at 532-533 (Stevens, J., dissenting), and open about defending a theory that explains why the cost of this stigma is worth bearing and why it can consist with the Constitution, no basis can be shown for today's casual abandonment of strict scrutiny.

Though the racial composition of this Nation is far more diverse than the first Justice Harlan foresaw, his warning in dissent is now all the more apposite: "The destinies of the two races, in this country, are indissolubly linked together, and the interests of both require that the common government of all shall not permit the seeds of race hate to be planted under the sanction of law." Plessy, 163 U.S., at 560 (dissenting opinion). Perhaps the Court can succeed in its assumed role of case-by-case arbiter of when it is desirable and benign for the Government to disfavor some citizens and favor others based on the color of their skin. Perhaps the tolerance and decency to which our people aspire will let the disfavored rise above hostility and the favored escape condescension. But history suggests much peril in this enterprise, and so the Constitution forbids us to undertake it. I regret that after a century of judicial opinions we interpret the Constitution to do no more than move us from "separate but equal" to "unequal but benign."


1 The Court fails to address the difficulties, both practical and constitutional, with the task of defining members of racial groups that its decision will require. The Commission, for example, has found it necessary to trace an applicant's family history to 1492 to conclude that the applicant was "Hispanic" for purposes of a minority tax certificate policy. See Storer Broadcasting Co., 87 F.C.C. 2d 190 (1981). I agree that "the very attempt to define with precision a beneficiary's qualifying racial characteristics is repugnant to our constitutional ideals." Fullilove v. Klutznick, 448 U.S. 448, 534, n.5 (1980) (Stevens, J., dissenting); see id., at 531-532 (Stewart, J., dissenting). "If the National Government is to make a serious effort to define racial classes by criteria that can be administered objectively, it must study precedents such as the First Regulation to the Reichs Citizenship Law of November 14, 1935, translated in 4 Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression, Document No.1417-PS, pp. 8-9 (1946)." Id., at 534, n.5. Other examples are available. See Population Registration Act No.30 of 1950, Statutes of the Republic of South Africa 71 (1985).

2 Justice Stevens' assertion that the FCC policy "does not imply any judgment concerning ... the merits of different kinds of programming," ante, at 2, is curious. If this policy, which is explicitly aimed at the ultimate goal of altering programming content, does not "imply any judgment concerning ... the merits of different kinds of programming," then it is difficult to see how the FCC's policy serves any governmental interest, let alone substantially furthers an important one.

3 The record in one of these two cases indicates that Astroline Communications Company, the beneficiary of the distress sale policy in this case, had a total capitalization of approximately $24,000,000. Its sole minority principal was a Hispanic-American who held 21" of Astroline's overall equity and 71" of its voting equity. His total cash contribution was $210. See App. in No. 89-700, pp. 68-69.