How do we move forward on racial equality in the wake of the April 22 Supreme Court ruling upholding the the state of Michigan’s ban on affirmative action in colleges?
For some context on that question, it pays to roll back the clock almost exactly 60 years, to May 17, 1954, when a very different Supreme Court issued its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.
That was the ruling that held that state-sanctioned school segregation was illegal – that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” and violate the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.
It was a hard battle to get the nine justices of the Supreme Court to be unanimous on that ruling, and an even harder battle to get the rest of the nation to agree.
The debate surrounding the Michigan ruling shows the extent to which we’re still wrestling with how much we as a society are willing to commit to ensure equal educational opportunity for all people regardless of race.
In the majority opinion in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Justice Anthony Kennedy took pains to say this was not about whether states should take extra measures based on race to ensure equal opportunity. It was instead, he said, about the right of the people to decide whether such measures were appropriate.
But Justice Sonya Sotomayor said the majority ruling “reveals how little my colleagues understand about the reality of race in America.”
Here’s part of that reality, revealed in a chart published by The New York Times on how racial minorities have fared in states with bans on affirmative action.
When California banned race-based affirmative action plans through a referendum in 1998, African-American freshman enrollment at UCLA went from almost equal to the proportion of African Americans in the state population, between 8 and 9 percent, down to 3 percent in 2011.
After Michigan banned race-based affirmative action in 2008, the share of the freshman class at Michigan State that is African American is half what it was in 2001.
You’ll see examples of the same story in Texas, Florida and Washington state, and for the most part for Latinos as well as African Americans. All these states made a point of promising that they could make progress on racial equality in college admissions without taking race into account. The numbers speak to their failure.
Chief Justice John Roberts, echoing a conservative ideological point of view that is as fact-blind as it is purportedly race blind, famously said that “the way to stop discriminating on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” But Justice Sotomayor in her dissent countered, “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.”
That brings us back to the unfinished business of Brown v. Board.
Recently the Economic Policy Institute released a report that concluded that “school segregation remains a central feature of American public education … [L]ow-income black children are more racially and socioeconomically isolated today than at any time since 1980.”
It’s no mystery why. America’s economy today remains racially stratified. Average family wealth of African-American households is only one-sixth that of whites. That wealth gap helps fuel the housing affordability gap, which leads to segregated neighborhoods. And segregated neighborhoods become the basis for segregated schools.
And in spite of any efforts to make schools equal on the surface, as long as we have a society that fails to take on economic inequities that are the continuing ripples of our history of racial inequality, we will have an education system that is, in the words of the Brown v. Board ruling, “inherently unequal.”
If there was a fatal flaw in the college affirmative action fight for the past 40 years, it was that it was too often disconnected from the larger need for a set of affirmative actions to address fundamental economic disparities – such as African-American unemployment rates that remain more than twice that of whites and rates of poverty that are almost three times that of whites. We are learning more from psychology and other sciences about how these kinds of disparities hobble African-American children from the day they are born – and, for that matter, while they are still in the womb of a poverty-stricken mother.
The time to take affirmative action to deal with all of these disparities is long before high-school students of color start filling out college admission forms. The tragedy of the Michigan affirmative action ruling is that it gives citizens permission to ignore inequality and to leave the mechanisms that perpetuate it unmolested. But we as citizens, as Justice Kennedy pointed out, can just as easily take the initiative to tackle those mechanisms head-on and work on ending these enduring effects of our racial history.