Courtesy of Cornell University

Richard T. Ford, speaker at this year's Martin Luther King Lecture, is the George E. Osborne Professor of Law at Stanford University.

February 16, 2023

“Diversity Becomes Substitute of Racial Justice”: Stanford Professor Discusses Affirmative Action at Martin Luther King Commemorative Lecture

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This year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Lecture took place on Feb. 8 at Sage Chapel, featuring Richard T. Ford, professor of law at Stanford University, as the key speaker. 

As the public waits for the Supreme Court’s vote in June toward affirmative action in college admission, Ford shared his thoughts on how the case reflects problems within the current admission process and how United States universities should adjust admission policies to promote racial justice.

Joel Harter, associate dean of student for spiritual and meaning-making director of Cornell United Religious Work, kicked off the lecture by introducing the event sponsors and expressing gratitude to the lecture planning committees. Dean of Students Marla Love then explained the purpose of the annual lecture, recalling Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to the University in 1960 and 1961. 

To begin the lecture, Ford explained the two Supreme Court cases that will determine the fate of affirmative action: Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College and Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. University of North Carolina. Students for Fair Admissions argued that the affirmative action processes at both colleges favored white applicants at the cost of Asian Americans and other underrepresented groups. 

According to Ford, the Supreme Court is likely to declare affirmative action as unconstitutional and unlawful, ending the decades-long practice of affirmative action in college admissions. To many, this is a step backward for racial equality.

Ford agrees that affirmative action helped establish greater academic equality. However, Ford believes policies like affirmative action, which solely emphasize diversity, are insufficient in ensuring true racial justice in modern times.

“While the ideal of diversity is encouraging modest efforts to promote racial integration and racial inclusion, I’m afraid that the term ‘diversity’ has also become a lazy stand for any discussion of the generations of race-based exclusion and exploitation that make race-conscious hiring and race-conscious college admissions necessary,” Ford said. “In this way, diversity has encouraged us to ignore and minimize past injustices, and therefore it has distorted and limited what our notions of justice require today.”

Ford explained that the current use of affirmative action allows universities and colleges to make racial inclusion commitments solely around promoting diversity in the student body. Therefore, diversity becomes the substitute for the earlier focus on racial justice.

“In the early 1970s, when Americans talked about racial justice, they may have used terms like civil rights, integration or even black power. Today they will speak of diversity,” Ford said. “Everyone to the left of Marjorie Taylor Greene claims to value diversity, diverse neighborhoods, diverse workplaces, diverse police forces, diverse political parties and, of course, diverse schools.”

Ford illustrated the problem by analyzing law school applications. He pointed out that as law schools emphasize diversity, applicants submit similar application statements that all describe the cultural diversity of their experiences, rather than racial injustices.

“None of [the statements] speak directly to the history of racism, the salience of racism in their lives, biased teachers, inadequate schools, police violence and discrimination,” Ford said. “Instead, they talk about forms of cultural differences that are comfortable, and so they tend to talk about the same things.”

Ford held a question and answer session following the speech and ended the program leaving audience members to reflect on the conversation.

“It’s especially ironic that you’re going to have people in the court who call themselves originalists who will find a way to avoid the obvious original, intended meaning of the 14th amendment,” Ford said. “Or use silence sometimes as a moment of pedagogical reflection… so I want you to sit with that.”