Asserting that today’s landmark affirmative action case was decided by her six conservative Supreme Court colleagues with “let them eat cake obliviousness”, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson ripped into the majority’s failure to recognize the “gulf-sized, race-based gaps that exist with respect to the health, wealth, and well-being of American citizens”. These gaps, she wrote, create a terribly uneven playing field in a society that has “never been colorblind”. She continued by asserting that the majority pulled “the ripcord” and announced “‘colorblindness for all’ by legal fiat. But deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life.” I would add that this is true no matter how much Mike Pence and others like him might try to wish it away.
The Supreme Court’s majority’s decision to declare colorblindness as the new law in college admissions fails to acknowledge the undeniable reality that race continues to impact the lives of individuals, particularly in the context of education and opportunity. While some may wish to believe in an alternate history of America where race is irrelevant, the social and economic disadvantages faced by marginalized communities persist regardless of wishes, thoughts or prayers. Simply deeming race irrelevant and enshrining the illusion of colorblindness through the law does not eradicate its effects in the very real lives of countless individuals.
People with privilege and power are very good at creating systems to keep things the way they have always been. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning masterwork, “Caste,” Isabel Wilkerson illuminates the pernicious nature of well-accepted social systems: “Caste is insidious and therefore powerful because it is not hatred, it is not necessarily personal. It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things.”
Affirmative action was put in place precisely to correct the perpetuation of the decidedly unnatural “natural order” of the American, race-based caste system that has prevailed in our country for centuries. Now, with one stroke of the proverbial pen, the Court has declared that colorblindness will be the new law in college admissions even if color has handicapped huge portions of this society that gives a handout (in the way of a college admission letter) to applicants who, as a former boss of mine once said, “were born on third base and like to think they hit a triple.”
By this I mean that there will still be, in practice, affirmative action for a couple different kinds of college applicants. First, there are the legacy children of the very, very wealthy whose parents (or grandparents or great grandparents) have funded buildings and made extremely generous donations that ensure that their (perhaps) not so talented, not so intelligent offspring can walk right into the Ivy-covered buildings of Harvard, Princeton or Yale. Then, there are the (perhaps) talented, intelligent children of middle- and upper-middle class strivers (like my two kids, who are indeed pretty smart, but I am biased) who have every privilege such as stable environments unmarred by poverty, expensive tutors, parents with access and connections at the highest levels of society and a world-class education of their own that they can pass down to their kids in the way of sophisticated vocabulary, better-than-average math skills, etc.
Why are preferences based on race, which are of course very often a proxy for those based on class, not allowed while affirmative action based on privilege is tolerated with a shrug? How will we ever achieve a more perfect union with a clearly skewed system like this? This double standard undermines the principles of equality and social justice that we all aspire to uphold. It reinforces long-existing disparities, it entrenches the profound advantages of the few, and it limits the opportunities for those who, based solely on their race, have faced systemic disadvantages through the history of our nation.
Affirmative action, when applied comprehensively and thoughtfully, aims to rectify the historical injustices and inequities embedded within our society. It recognizes the intersectionality of race and class, addressing both as integral components of affirmative action policies. Such policies not only acknowledge the enduring impact that race has had in our history but also aim to dismantle the structural barriers that hinder social mobility.
Opponents of affirmative action often argue that it compromises meritocracy by giving preferential treatment to certain individuals. However, true meritocracy should not be limited to academic achievements alone. It should encompass a recognition of diverse talents, experiences, and perspectives. By valuing diversity in college admissions, we promote a meritocracy that recognizes the potential qualities of individuals, rather than reducing worth to test scores or pedigree.
Education has long been regarded as a pathway to social mobility and equal opportunities. However, without affirmative action, marginalized communities face additional barriers that impede their access to quality education. By eliminating or limiting affirmative action, we risk perpetuating cycles of inequality, reinforcing the notion that success in education is primarily determined by one’s background rather than individual potential.
To address the challenges of a diverse society, colleges and universities must foster an inclusive and enriching learning environment. Affirmative action plays a vital role in achieving this goal. It promotes cross-cultural understanding, breaks down stereotypes, and prepares students for the complexities of a globalized world. When students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds interact and collaborate, they gain valuable perspectives and develop the skills necessary to navigate diverse workplaces and contribute positively to society.
In effect, today’s Supreme Court ruling is a fundamentally unpragmatic, and thus unAmerican decision. The decision to discard race-based affirmative action represents a tragic failure to acknowledge the lived realities and actual circumstances of millions of Americans. Instead of justice, this decision reinforces the old system that advantages the privileged few while disregarding the barriers faced by those who have historically been marginalized.
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