The Supreme Court has just set a dangerous precedent by upholding Michigan’s ban on affirmative action policies in public universities. In the Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action case, the Court voted 6-2 in favor of the ban.
The danger of the decision does not involve any infringement of state rights, real or perceived. The danger is not in any judgment on the constitutionality of race-conscious admissions policies in higher education or the possibility of a federal ban thereof. The danger comes from the fear of addressing race head-on.
In reality, the Court did not make any decision on affirmative action; instead, it turned the decision over to the hands of the Michigan voters. As Justice Kennedy stated, “The courts may not disempower the voters from choosing which path to follow.” Thus, now each state may (or may not) vote on a referendum to allow race as a consideration in college admissions.
However, what is the role of the judicial branch if not to protect the citizens of the country from discrimination – or the outcomes of a history of discrimination? The Supreme Court has confronted race directly in the past in cases when minorities were left behind such as Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education.
However, the recent decisions of the Court have shown a move in the opposite direction. “Our country has changed,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in the majority opinion in the decision to strike down crucial parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But this is not a good enough reason to take up a faulty “color-blind” logic today – in admissions procedures or voting rights.
As much as we would like to believe it, the country has not changed. While overt racism may no longer be as socially acceptable as it used to be in years past, there are still striking racial wealth disparities in our country that are continuing to widen. Minorities are disproportionately affected by unemployment. There are still widespread achievement gaps between races across the country. And in states where affirmative action has been banned, public universities have tended to enroll fewer black and Hispanic freshmen. Enrollment of black students at UCLA has dropped to three percent of the student body, sparking large social media action and the viral Black Bruins spoken word project to initiate discussion on the matter.
These systemic problems will not be fixed if we refuse to acknowledge their reality or the history of discrimination in this country. As Justice Sotomayor stated in her dissent, “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.”
Here at Stanford, a private university where admissions procedures are not dictated by the state, we are fortunate enough to achieve much more racial diversity than UCLA and other California public schools. This is can only be attained by taking race into account. Even income-based affirmative action would fail to help close the achievement gap between races because there are six times as many low-SES white students as black students to whom income-based affirmative action would also give preference.
The Supreme Court’s decision on the Michigan case now simply perpetuates the lie that races are “equal enough” in the country. It allows majority rule to overtake minority rights – something that the republican process was never meant to uphold. The Supreme Court must exert its authority in order to reduce the de facto discrimination that still pervades society today.
The U.S. is not color-blind, nor does it need to be. What we need is frank awareness of the true racial disparities that still exist and action to eliminate them.
Contact Aimee Trujillo at [email protected].