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Constitutional Colorblindness and the Family

Family law has escaped the colorblindness revolution. During the same time frame that the Supreme Court has adopted increasingly stringent constitutional standards for even “benign” uses of race (including, most notably, affirmative action), the lower courts have continued to take a loose and permissive approach to many government uses of race in the family law context. Thus, courts have continued to regularly affirm (and to apply minimal constitutional scrutiny to) the use of race to determine foster care and adoptive placements, as well as the use of race as a factor in custody disputes between interracial parents.

This Article, drawing on heretofore unexplored historical sources, examines the Supreme Court’s role in the development of these divergent approaches to the use of race in the affirmative action and family law contexts. As those sources demonstrate, the Court has—over the last forty years—had numerous opportunities to address the growing divide. Nevertheless, the Court (and particularly some of its most ardent affirmative action detractors) has historically been reluctant to do so, at least in part because of a normative endorsement of the race-based practices at issue in the family law context. Thus, the Court has avoided cases involving the use of race in family law—and taken other steps to limit the reach of its doctrine in the family law arena—based on a perception that remaining uses of race in the family are fundamentally different, and at least in some contexts, benign.

This history has profound implications for the Court’s broader race law jurisprudence. The Supreme Court has—at least facially—rejected the possibility of a role for contextual or normative factors in its application of equal protection doctrine to race. Instead, the Court has demanded that race-based classifications—no matter what their intent or effects—be subjected to strict scrutiny. But the history of the Court’s approach to family law strongly suggests that the Court itself does in fact weigh such considerations in its approach to taking up and adjudicating race law claims. This Article suggests that there are serious process, legitimacy, and substantive concerns raised by such a divergence between the Court’s formal doctrine and its practice, and discusses alternatives for aligning the two more fully.