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. 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 paper, 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 40 years — had numerous opportunities to address the growing divide. Nevertheless the Court (and particularly its most strident affirmative action detractors) have 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 taking up 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 normative perception that remaining instantiations of race in family law are, at their core, benign.
This history has profound implications for the Court’s broader race law jurisprudence. Supreme Court doctrine has — on its face — rejected the possibility of a role for normative judgments about the “benign” or “invidious” nature of particular race-based classifications in its Equal Protection doctrine. But the history of the Court’s approach to family law suggests strongly that the Court itself does in fact weigh such factors sub rosa 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, and discusses alternatives for bringing the Court’s doctrine into greater alignment with its practice.