Last week, the Supreme Court assembled to hear arguments against affirmative action in two cases. Affirmative action is the longstanding practice of considering race and membership in underrepresented demographics as one of many factors in admissions and hiring. Race-conscious admissions are proven to increase diversity in higher education and combat racial inequality. Legal experts forecast that the conservative Court will scale back, if not eliminate entirely, a college’s right to practice affirmative policies that take race into account. This should worry us all.
If the Court bans race-conscious admissions, decades of progress toward equal opportunity will be reversed and the wealth of perspectives that we enjoy in academic forums today could dwindle in years to come. We also stand to lose a time-honored, effective mechanism “to counteract the inherited disadvantages that unequally but in patterned ways burden certain races in our society but not others,” Prof. Nelson Tebbe, law, told me. Tebbe, a constitutional law expert, stressed the importance of recognizing “structural racism as an empirical reality in the United States.”
Tebbe’s sentiments offer lucidity at a time when Republican politicians deny systemic racism and disregard the lingering symptoms of centuries of legalized discrimination, slavery and genocide. Distressingly, that reactionary rhetoric is being parroted from the Bench. Dismissing the need for diversity in higher education, Justice Clarence Thomas said last Monday, “I’ve heard the word ‘diversity’ quite a few times, and I don’t have a clue what it means. It seems to mean everything for everyone.”
No, Justice Thomas, what diversity simply means is that, in the interest of democracy, our colleges and universities are representative of the country whose future leaders they’ll graduate. In an economy where a college degree is a prerequisite for high-paying, specialized jobs, affirmative action is crucial to upward mobility for those who didn’t have the luxury of being born into generational wealth because their ancestors’ skin color was seen as reason enough to deny a loan, an education, healthcare, housing, a job and anything else that fell to discretion.
Another benefit of affirmative action is that, by promoting minority leaders, it helps to defeat prejudice everywhere decisions are made. Thus, the positive impacts of affirmative policies reverberate throughout underserved communities, ensuring that the inequities of the past won’t survive to make it to the future.
“It’s not fair,” exclaimed Cornell’s Vice Provost for Enrollment Jon Burdick when I asked him about the Court’s treatment of affirmative action. I couldn’t have put it better myself. Burdick oversees admissions, registrar leaders, financial aid and student employment. He told me that Cornell is bracing for all potential outcomes, assessing measures to preserve racial diversity ahead of restrictions that the Supreme Court may impose. University policies that we discussed include extensive early outreach campaigns aimed at low-income, first-generation students; expanded financial aid offerings; and an ambitious goal to raise the number of aided low- and middle-income students at Cornell by 1,000.
While we students should applaud Cornell’s wide-ranging plans, we must also remember that at best there’s no guarantee that representative racial diversity will remain if the Court falls in line with conservativism’s crusade against discussions of race in education. Evidence suggests that highly-selective institutions, including Cornell, would become radically less diverse if the Court outlaws considerations of race in admissions.
Detractors claim that race-conscious admissions work against meritocracy, favoring the disadvantaged over the highly-competitive. This is an argument I can hardly entertain. How can there be any talk of fairness when the scales of our nation’s history have been tipped against generations of Americans on the basis of race?
Our centuries-long legacy of structural racism shows today like a scar that will take generations of collective effort to remedy. To critics of affirmative action, I say there can be no talk of fairness when Black Americans find themselves more than three times more likely to be killed by law enforcement than white Americans. There can be no talk of fairness when, on average, Hispanic workers earn nearly 30 percent less than their white peers. There can be no talk of fairness when for every dollar of wealth amassed by the average white household, Native American homes own just eight cents’ worth. There can be no talk of color blindness in admissions when prejudice pervades our society and unequally steals opportunities from the historical victims of racist laws and cultural intolerance. Race is one of many factors in the holistic review of an applicant that gives important context of who they are and what barriers they’ve overcome in their academic journey.
To become responsible leaders, it’s imperative that students are exposed to a plurality of perspectives, living and learning in a community where differences are celebrated. Affirmative action enables that and is a boon for overcoming intergenerational racial disparities in our society. Diversity in academia is not just fundamental to a well-rounded education — it’s the lifeblood of democracy. The Court’s impending decision threatens the fight for equal opportunity and our advancement as an inclusive society. In these uncertain times, we students must embody tolerance and forge a future that keeps our democracy, which is under siege by the Court, alive. If we wish to remain on the right side of history, we must also vocalize our support of affirmative action, seeing how our country’s long history of racism afflicts students of color today.
Gabriel Levin (he/him) is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected] Almost Fit to Print runs every other Monday this semester.