Yesterday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Schuette v. BAMN came as no surprise to anyone who has been observing the Roberts Court’s moonwalk back to the early 20th century. In this case that stemmed from the Michigan ban on affirmative action in college admissions the Court determined that the law should stand as an indication of the public will. This latest ruling is just the latest in a 36 year journey since the Bakke decision to turn a blinded judicial eye to racial barriers gaining access to employment and post-secondary education opportunities. In her dissent Justice Sotomayor succinctly made the case that “race matters” in America.
The degree to which the nation has moved away from the principle of equity is striking. It is evident in much of the news coverage of Monday’s Supreme Court ruling. Major media organizations, print and electronic, used the term “racial preferences” in their coverage when describing affirmative action, though the two are not one in the same. In fact, it has been long established that there can be no racial preference in affirmative action policies. Still, it has become the stuff of urban legend that colleges and employers are selecting unqualified Blacks over more qualified whites for admission or employment and job promotions. The myth of the “racial quota” holds fast in the mind of many white Americans and the press enables resentment by consistently referring to affirmative action as racial preferences. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Through the series of legal challenges to affirmative action, race has been allowed as ‘one’ of the factors that could be used in determining admission to a university.
The U.S. Supreme Court has now ruled in a way that brings us back to ‘states’ rights’ and given power to states to do away with affirmative action. It is a sign of the degree to which the principle of equity is on life support in America. As the nation inches closer to having a majority Black and Latino population it is clear there is a move afoot to preserve white entitlement in education and employment. How else can you explain the paranoia of whites when Blacks only comprise 5% of all lawyers and physicians, barely 6% of all engineers, and are still shut out of most construction trades jobs and jobs in municipal fire and police departments across the country. So, the real argument is not against ‘proportion” but rather sheer presence. The truth is we are being told by the Roberts Court that education is the sole purview of white America and if whites deem affirmative action as interfering on their privilege, so be it.
Yesterday’s ruling clears the way for other states to follow Michigan’s errant path. We suspect some will, particularly states controlled by Republican legislatures or with Republican governors or attorneys generals. The future does not look promising for the use of public policy to address barriers to college entry for Blacks and Latinos. While many suggest that income is a more permissible way to achieve diversity on college campuses this approach fails to acknowledge that the use of race was never a problem, it is racism that has denied opportunity to thousands of capable Black students at their preferred institutions of study. It is a distinction worth repeating.
We are now facing the crossroad of a new era of plausible deniability for racism in American higher education. The Black applicant won’t be rejected because of her race, it will because her grades are suspect, her GPA lower than her peers, her SAT or ACT scores just a hair too low, or she simply doesn’t fit the profile. It will be a myriad of reasons that will seem legitimate but will mask institutional bias. It is just the latest retrenchment from equity, the latest maneuver to undo Black progress and the loosening of white privilege. Worse, the conservative assault on the federal judiciary means we can expect little relief from the courts, and worse, we should be prepared for an onslaught of state level attacks.