Supreme Court's Affirmative Action Ruling Was Wrong Because, Newflash, Racism Still Exists
No, the Supreme Court didn't ban affirmative action with its ruling Tuesday, but it did deal the policy a mighty blow; upholding a voter-passed ban on racial preferences in Michigan's state-run universities. The ruling, basically, means that voters can choose to ban racial preferences in admission's decisions at public universities (something eight states — including Michigan — have already done). Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, "Democracy does not presume that some subjects are either too divisive or too profound for public debate."
This isn't the first time the current Supreme Court has harmed policies intended to even the playing field for minorities. In 2013, SCOTUS veritably gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965; in that case, the (conservative) majority felt that racism was no longer prevalent enough to warrant special oversight in elections. "Our country has changed," wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. in his majority opinion.
With the Supreme Court's ruling, a dangerous precedent repeats itself: that of American racial policy being determined by white, conservative men out of touch with the racial realities of this country.
It must be nice for Justices Kennedy and Roberts to live in a country no longer plagued by racism — a view adopted by almost half of white Americans, who according to a Pew poll conducted last year believe that a lot of progress has been made in terms of racial discrimination since the Civil Rights Act. But blacks aren't quite so optimistic: just 32 percent think a lot of progress has been made, while nearly eight-in-ten think that a lot of work still needs to be done.
Who do you believe?
In nearly every indicator of economic wellbeing, blacks fall far behind whites. Since 1954, the first year the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking unemployment rates by race, blacks have seen unemployment rates at twice those of whites — consistently, every year, since 1954. In 2011, the median household income for a white family of three was $67,175. For a black family of three, it was $39,760. Blacks are significantly less likely to own a home (only 44 percent do, as opposed to 73 percent of whites) and are three times as likely as whites to live below the poverty line.
Divides persist in education, as well. College enrollment rates, by race, are progressing, but white high school graduates still outnumber black high-school graduates. High-school graduation rates for Latinos and blacks remain low. In many states that have enacted affirmative action bans, enrollment among minorities has been declining.
Why do we still see such a racial discrepancy in these areas? Is it because minorities are inherently less capable of graduating from high school, attending college, and succeeding in the workplace? To even entertain such an idea is preposterous, and yet when we enact policies based on the idea that racism no longer exists, where does that leave us? We end up ignoring present-day barriers to equality — access to food and housing, education about governmental aid programs, a fair chance to voting— because today's racism doesn't look exactly like the racism of our grandparents.
With the Supreme Court's ruling, a dangerous precedent repeats itself: that of American racial policy being determined by white, conservative men out of touch with the racial realities of this country. Tuesday's ruling doesn't pave the way for the American public to make better decisions about its race policy. Instead, it might open doors for the country's most powerful political actors to push bans of affirmative action in more states, hindering potential progress toward racial equality in our nation.
The question presented to the court wasn't about the constitutionality of race-based admissions programs: it was about the political process through which these policies can be adopted. As a democracy, it is important for the American people to have a voice in their government, and to be able to participate meaningfully in the political system.
But how is the premise of these bans actually democratic?
The Michigan ban effectively silences minorities hoping to gain even-footing through affirmative action policies. If a student athlete or legacy applicant wants to use that status in their admissions process, they need only to appeal to the university. But should a minority student wish to use their racial status in a similar way, they have to repeal a statewide constitutional amendment.
How does it benefit societal equality to let a legacy-child born to college-educated parents use that status to affect their admission prospects, while denying a minority student — born into institutionalized racism — that same right? Prohibiting minority students from petitioning to use that status isn't equality. It's simply another example of a majority crowd oppressing a minority voice.
Writing for the dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor put it best:
We are fortunate to live in a democratic society. But without checks, democratically approved legislation can oppress minority groups. For that reason, our Constitution places limits on what a majority of the people may do ... In my colleagues' view, examining the racial impact of legislation only perpetuates racial discrimination. This refusal to accept the stark reality that race matters is regrettable. As members of the judiciary tasked with intervening to carry out the guarantee of equal protection, we ought not sit back and wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society.
Perhaps some of the voters in Michigan were well intentioned, hoping to draw focus away from racial inequality and toward an income inequality in higher-education, which certainly exists as well. But the truth is that racism is deeply entrenched in our society, however much we might want to wish it away. We can't accept policies based on the idea that racism no longer exists. That premise is more than flawed policy — it's downright ignorant.