On Tuesday, the United States Supreme Court voted that a state’s citizens can vote to exclude race as a factor in determining whether a prospective student should be admitted into a college — and it was a huge mistake.
By a vote of six to two—with Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg offering the dissent and Elena Kagan abstaining—the court voted to let Michiganders prohibit race from being a determining factor in such decisions. The court’s ruling gave citizens the green light when it comes to ending racial preferences in such situations, but the justices didn’t weigh in on whether affirmative action itself was constitutional.
Justice Antonin Scalia, a stalwart conservative, said that the citizens of Michigan let their voices be heard that they were in favor of a constitution that viewed all people as just that—people—not paying attention to what color their skin might be.
“It would be shameful for us to stand in their way,” he said.
Scalia’s comments, on the surface, are indeed respectable. After all, the whole point of the Civil Rights movement was to force Americans to see that we are all humans and we are all in this together — we are all equal. In Scalia’s mind, or at least his argument, the very notion of using someone’s skin color as a basis for determining whether they should be admitted into a university is inherently racist.
That’s a logical position to take to some extent, but not when someone considers this nation’s history and the fact that from slavery to internment camps to the post-9/11 treatment toward Muslims, minorities don’t exactly have an enviable track record when it comes to how they’ve collectively been treated in this country. Sure, Scalia’s argument makes sense in a utopian world, but we don’t live in that world.
Sotomayor, whose dissent was read aloud in court and was longer than the four affirmative opinions issued by the court, is herself of Puerto Rican ancestry. She grew up as a woman in New York City during the ‘50s and ‘60s. Sotomayor certainly has some firsthand experience with what it’s like to be a minority trying to make something of yourself.
“But without checks, democratically approved legislation can oppress minority rights,” she said. She then added that Michiganders “changed the basic rules of the political process in that state in a manner that uniquely disadvantaged racial minorities.”
Let’s face it: Many white people have better economic advantages which, generally speaking, translate into more educational opportunities. Of course that’s not to say that all white people are rich and privileged — that would be a racist sentiment — but many prospective students might not need an extra boost to help them get into college.
If two candidates appear equal on their applications to the University of Michigan, but one is a white kid from New Canaan, Conn. and the other is a black kid from Detroit, which candidate is the admission’s officer more likely to take now, thanks to this ruling? (Of course, colleges stand to make money from out-of-state students, but you get my point.)
And who knows, maybe you’ll find yourself one day in court dealing with a construction lawsuit, and that kid from Detroit would have been the best lawyer you could have by your side. But thanks to the SCOTUS’ ruling, that kid’s chances of getting into the college of his dreams have just been taken down at least a peg, if not more.
Since Michigan’s voters changed the state constitution in 2006 — in a campaign spearheaded by anti-affirmative action groups — black and Latino enrollment at the University of Michigan has dropped, according to the Associated Press. And that’s shameful, because as a society that cares about giving the less fortunate chances and empowering those around us, we must do all that is within our power to make sure we make it easier — not harder — for them to succeed.
It remains to be seen what the ultimate outcome of this decision will be. Will other likeminded groups scattered across the country seek to alter their state constitutions in a similar manner so as to replicate what happened in Michigan? Or will other special interest groups protest the court’s ruling?
You would think that the U.S. might have transcended the divisive issue of race in the five decades that have passed since Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But the sad and harsh truth is that we have not. While we do live in a country where the power to establish laws rests in the hands of the people—something that we’re lucky to have—there does come a time when we have to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.
In this case, I think it’s quite clear that the law in Michigan will have unintended consequences. While we as a nation keep trying to brainstorm ways to clean up the cities, educate the poor and see more young men and women succeed, we shouldn’t do anything that deters them from seeking that improvement. And making it even slightly more difficult to get into college certainly impedes the progress we hope to see.