There is a recurring theme in American history: the backlash of hard-won progress. And the Supreme Court last week used the flimsiest of arguments to do so with affirmative action.
In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that affirmative action—in that case, the use of race as a factor in college admissions—cannot stand because “to eliminate racial discrimination means to eliminate all of it.” But, of course, neither the court nor the United States itself has any desire to get rid of all of it. Reading that line was like having someone spit in my face.
What the court really signaled was that it intended to let racial imbalances born of both historical and current injustices be locked in and go unchecked.
Affirmative action, while imperfect, is at least an acknowledgment of racial imbalance and injury, and an attempt to lessen their effects.
The court, with this decision, washed its hands of racial discrimination that is not overt, conscious and codified, knowing full well that American racism, having evolved into increasingly elegant forms over the centuries, no longer requires an articulate soul to be brutal. effective Enslavement evolved into convict leasing and then to mass incarceration. Lynching has evolved into a racially distorted capital punishment device. Survey tests and literacy tests evolved into racial gerrymandering, voter ID requirements and restrictions on the day, times and methods of voting,
The evolved forms may not be as blunt as the ancestral ones, but they do keep the spirit, and in many cases the actuality, of racial imbalance and oppression very much alive.
Citing an older case, Roberts wrote that “when a university admits students” on the basis of race, it engages in the offensive and demeaning assumption that [students] of a particular race, because of their race, think the same.'”
This is also a deception. Race is meaningless. But, living in a society where racism is rampant and chronic, a society in which you – because of race – had to navigate that racism, has meaning. And anti-black racism is a particular, virulent form of racism with a long history and deep roots in this country.
Different Black people will experience and deal with that racism in different ways. Such is the variable nature of mankind. Even the Black conservatives who downplay or reject the pervasiveness of American racism will discuss their experiences navigating it.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in great detail about navigating race and racism in his memoir, “My Grandfather’s Son.”
Yet in Thomas’ inappropriate attempts, in his concurrence, to clip the wings of the only other Black justice, Ketanji Brown Jackson — who wrote a spirited dissent — and mock what he calls her “race-infused worldview,” he exposes the fragility of his argument.
Thomas writes: “Individuals are the sum of their unique experiences, challenges and achievements. What matters is not the barriers they face, but how they choose to face them.” But, of course, the anti-Black barriers are only faced by Black people.
He continues: “And their race is not to blame for everything – good or bad – that happens in their lives. On the contrary, a myopic worldview based on the skin color of individuals to the total exclusion of their personal choices is nothing less than racial determinism.”
This is reductive absolutism meant to shut down debate. The argument has never been that people who face racism are simply ribbons in the wind, blown and powerless against it. It is, rather, that racism is real and must be addressed; that for blacks, a birth certificate is a binding card into a war as old as the country over racial equality and equity.
Thomas condemns Jackson’s views as “an insult to individual achievement and cancerous to young minds seeking to break through barriers, rather than surrender to permanent victimization.”
In theory, that stigmatized psychological injury is the same, in reverse, as one of the rationales that the court in 1954 proposed in its opinion in Brown v. because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority regarding their status in the community which can influence their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be done.”
Both versions of the argument are suspect.
The psychological consequences flow not from how one feels about how one is viewed but from an injustice produced by the greater ability of some families to acquire and pass on wealth; in material damages produced by the increased likelihood of discrimination in employment, banking, health care and the criminal justice system; of discriminatory urban planning and the underfunding of separate schools.
Since Brown, the heart-and-mind ideology has shifted to focus not so much on harming blacks as on the imperative to win over white people as a way to persuade them to abandon anti-black racism.
But at this point, attitudinal changes are little more than charitable, figurative gestures. It’s like trying to solve global warming individually by recycling your grocery bags and buying organic bananas. Now, only structural, disruptive changes can really make a difference. And that is where America refuses.
The court takes the absurd position that racism must be ignored for racism to be defeated. That opinion does not put racism on a leash; it gives it a license.