Six members of the Supreme Court clearly demonstrated their lack of understanding of the purposes of higher education in their recent decision about affirmative action in colleges and universities, specifically at Harvard and the University of North Carolina. (See Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina, two cases decided together.)
While it is shameful that Harvard, the intellectual prototype for university education, discriminated against Jews, African-Americans, and now Asians (an offensively broad and unspecific category) in admission, doing nothing about such discrimination should not be acceptable to anyone. Yet the Supreme Court majority leaves little room for remedies. Indeed, the Court majority has no interest in such matters, ignoring that the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted to end discrimination against slaves and their progeny by prohibiting the states from depriving any person of “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” and from denying anyone within a state equal protection under the law
Many universities have followed practices that create the opposite of fairness and equality.
But many universities have followed practices that create the opposite of fairness and equality. So long as universities and other institutions practice legacy admissions, we will have discrimination in favor of whites. So long as athletic skill is placed above academic achievement in awarding admission to a university, the lie of academic excellence will be exposed. Further, there are preferences for the children of high-dollar donors and faculty. Perhaps, as some have suggested, diversity can be achieved by using the demographic data of income, family wealth, and neighborhood impoverishment, along with academic competence. If so, this remedy has yet to be demonstrated.
When my small undergraduate liberal arts college in Georgetown, Texas, Southwestern University, decided to reintroduce intercollegiate football after 60 years without it, one primary reason given to me by a university official was that the change would attract more women to the university. Despite my skepticism, I was told that research supported this assertion. Apparently, Southwestern no longer had the desired number of women students, so it took affirmative actions to recruit them, perhaps to the detriment of male applicants.
I have no idea why most of my classmates were accepted to my college, and I don’t know why I was accepted. I came from a working class family, with one union member. Neither of my parents graduated from college. My grades and performance in high school were merely above average, but I did have an inquiring mind, I was white, my SAT scores were good, and my parents paid all the costs of college. Perhaps of more importance was that I had grown up in the Methodist Church, which is affiliated with Southwestern, most of my extracurricular activities revolved around my church, and I planned to become a Methodist minister. One semester at Southwestern was enough to change my mind, however, in favor of social activism in the secular world.
An essay I wrote was published in the Southwestern literary magazine.
In my senior year in college (mid-’60s), an essay I wrote was published in the Southwestern literary magazine. It included commentary indicating a warm acceptance of people who were homosexual. After its publication, a faculty member with whom I shared cordial relations, though I had taken no courses from him, stopped me on a sidewalk one day and told me that he had appreciated what I had written. He went on to say, however, that while he was glad to have me on campus, he wouldn’t want many others with my views at Southwestern. He didn’t explain that puzzling comment, but screening out applicants for their views would be a formidable task.
In 1962, when I began college, Southwestern’s approximately 840 students were nearly all white, with a handful of Hispanics and a few international students from South American countries (most of white European ancestry), the Middle East, and Asia. There were no African-Americans on the campus except for those who worked in service jobs as cooks, dish-washers, and custodians. A few students were interested in civil rights; at least one was a veteran; a handful were married; except for the married couples and a few local students, almost all others lived on campus.
I became casual friends with most of the international students who lived in my dorm. In addition, I spent some time getting to know one student who had cerebral palsy. I learned from all the students I met, though less from those who came from backgrounds similar to my own than from those whose backgrounds were different from mine.
Keeping African-Americans out of Southwestern was then an intentional policy of the Trustees.
From discussions with a member of the Board of Trustees in 1963, I learned that keeping African-Americans out of Southwestern was then an intentional policy of the Trustees and administration. In 1965 or 1966, one African-American who lived in nearby Round Rock was admitted because he could live at his home, rather than on campus.
Nearly everyone on campus came from Christian religious backgrounds, mostly Methodist, with a few Baptists and Episcopalians mixed in. In my high school years, I knew many Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, and one Jew. In addition, I was friends with several Hispanics and one African-American. I did not know a non-religious person until I left college to work for one year in a federally-funded anti-poverty program after my junior year.
My ideal college would be one that included people from all social and economic classes, all so-called races, many ethnic groups, with different gender orientations, a variety of intellectual interests, and from varying religious views and experiences. For the most part, I didn’t have such a college experience, nor were my teachers diverse. I was denied the rich experience that such diversity could afford. It has taken me a lifetime to make up for those omissions in my development and education, and I am not there yet; it is a never-ending process.
So how does a university achieve a mixture like the one I wish I had had? It can’t happen without intentionality.
The Supreme Court doesn’t take into account the value of diversity.
When the Supreme Court decides how colleges can put together their student bodies and faculties, it doesn’t take into account the value of diversity in a long list of characteristics that could enrich the college experience. Interestingly, though, the Court does allow the military academies to select students for diversity because the academies claim that diversity is important to their missions. That claim is not significantly different from the justifications offered by Harvard and the University of North Carolina.
Recent research from the American Council on Education finds that diversity in education and the workplace benefits everyone: racial and ethnic diversity in education (and the workforce) leads to greater productivity, innovation, and cultural competency. In college, students should have an opportunity to be exposed to a variety of viewpoints and learn from people who are different from them in important ways. Without such diversity, those opportunities are lost.
If college were about only reading, writing, and arithmetic, diversity might not matter. But for most undergraduates, college years are when they are making decisions about their lives, who they want to be, what they want to do, and what values they will embrace. The more varied the experiences and fellow students available to them, the more valuable that college education will be.
Fairness and equity require that we ameliorate our past mistakes.
Fairness and equity require that we ameliorate our past mistakes, both individually and as a nation. An organization that recognizes this truth is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which seeks to help its participants end their alcoholism. Maybe part of what AA has discovered can help overcome racism. One of the AA steps is to make “a searching and fearless moral inventory” –something that has never been completely done in this country regarding race, and seems beyond the ability of six of our current Supreme Court justices.
AA also requires a person to be willing to make amends for shortcomings, and to do so whenever possible. The same six justices have made this nearly impossible for America with regard to race, based on their misreading of our history and of the Constitution, and their own lack of concern with allowing our institutions to create a more equitable country. As Justice Sotomayor wrote in her dissenting opinion, “In [its] holding, the Court cements a superficial rule of colorblindness as a constitutional principle in an endemically segregated society where race has always mattered and continues to matter.”
My friend and a scholar of our political and social history, Robert Hoffert, expressed a similar view in a private essay about this Supreme Court opinion:
What we can bring to the courts and to the arena of law and public policies relates to the circumstances, conditions and processes within which we live our common life. And the Constitution provides a standard: they must be equitable. They must protect, provide opportunities, possess procedural integrity in ways that will contribute to similarly equitable conditions for all. Ironically, the surest path to injustice in a deeply unequal and diverse setting is to treat everyone the same. Uniformity in highly differentiated circumstances will never provide equal protection or equal opportunity. It will always strengthen structures of dominance and intensify structures of subordination. And that results in neither equal protection nor equality. Uniformity is a legal and moral betrayal of equal protection of the law unless or until we are all the same. [Emphasis added.]
‘The court takes the absurd position that racism must be ignored for racism to be overcome.’
Charles Blow, writing in The New York Times, expressed the issue this way: “The court takes the absurd position that racism must be ignored for racism to be overcome. That view doesn’t put racism on a leash; it grants it license.”
It is instructive to look briefly at South Africa, where the post-apartheid (from 1994) government included affirmative action (including numerical goals) in public service employment in its constitution to undo decades of discrimination against the Black majority by the white minority, and others identified as historically disadvantaged — “black people, women, and people with disabilities.” Had this been done in the U.S. after emancipation, with greater specificity from that found in the 14th Amendment, the history of discrimination in this country would be far different than it is.
With respect to those descended from slaves, as well as Freedmen (who also suffered discrimination), the Supreme Court needs to answer the question suggested earlier in this essay: How can we redress past and current racial inequity, injustice, bigotry, and unfairness to achieve greater equality? An unwillingness to address this question demonstrates unacknowledged racist views by the Supreme Court majority and at least one of our major political parties.
[Rag Blog columnist Lamar W. Hankins, a former San Marcos, Texas City Attorney, has a Doctor of Jurisprudence degree from the University of Houston. Hankins is retired and volunteers with the Final Exit Network as an Associate Exit Guide and contributor to the Good Death Society Blog.