Overturning Opportunity

In the spring of 1954, like so many Black families, mine waited anxiously for the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. My father and I talked about it and what it would mean for my future and the future of millions of other Black children who were attending segregated but unequal Black schools. He died the week before Brown was decided. But I and many other children were able, in later years, to walk through the new and heavy doors that Brown slowly and painfully opened.

It was a transforming time that set into motion a spate of other challenges to Jim Crow laws that changed America. But while Brown v. Board cracked open doors of opportunity that had previously been locked shut, the doors to true educational equality were never opened all the way, and never wide enough for millions of American children to enter. This year many families once again waited anxiously for a Supreme Court decision that might impact their children’s future. But this time many worried that the Supreme Court’s decision striking down race-based affirmative action college admissions programs at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina would pull doors of opportunity closed—most especially for the millions of children of color who attend schools in the United States today that are still largely segregated and still unequal.

The Fourth of July holiday is meant to bring Americans together to celebrate the promise of our Declaration of Independence. This year we are reminded again of the work that still needs to be done to make our nation live up to its ideals. In the opening to her dissent to the majority’s ruling in favor of Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. against the University of North Carolina, Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote: “Gulf-sized race-based gaps exist with respect to the health, wealth, and well-being of American citizens. They were created in the distant past, but have indisputably been passed down to the present day through the generations. Every moment these gaps persist is a moment in which this great country falls short of actualizing one of its foundational principles—the ‘self-evident’ truth that all of us are created equal.” A few sentences later she wrote: “Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) has maintained, both subtly and overtly, that it is unfair for a college’s admissions process to consider race as one factor in a holistic review of its applicants . . . This contention blinks both history and reality in ways too numerous to count. But the response is simple: Our country has never been colorblind. Given the lengthy history of state-sponsored race-based preferences in America, to say that anyone is now victimized if a college considers whether that legacy of discrimination has unequally advantaged its applicants fails to acknowledge the well-documented ‘intergenerational transmission of inequality’ that still plagues our citizenry.”

As she proceeded with her detailed dissent outlining this inequality and its potential effects on two hypothetical present-day students, Justice Jackson also wrote: “With let-them-eat-cake obliviousness, today, the majority pulls the ripcord and announces ‘colorblindness for all’ by legal fiat. But deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life . . . No one benefits from ignorance. Although formal race-linked legal barriers are gone, race still matters to the lived experiences of all Americans in innumerable ways, and today’s ruling makes things worse, not better. The best that can be said of the majority’s perspective is that it proceeds (ostrich-like) from the hope that preventing consideration of race will end racism. But if that is its motivation, the majority proceeds in vain. If the colleges of this country are required to ignore a thing that matters, it will not just go away. It will take longer for racism to leave us. And, ultimately, ignoring race just makes it matter more.”

No one benefits from ignorance. Ignorance will not make our children more free or more equal, and “ignoring” race—just like banning books about race, or prohibiting school lessons about race—will not benefit any of our children of any color. But those of us who refuse to go backwards are not about to give up now. As Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote at the end of her own dissent, “society’s progress toward equality cannot be permanently halted. Diversity is now a fundamental American value, housed in our varied and multicultural American community that only continues to grow . . . the opinion today will serve only to highlight the Court’s own impotence in the face of an America whose cries for equality resound.” Justice Sotomayor closed by citing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech at the end of the Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches, “Our God is Marching On”: “As has been the case before in the history of American democracy, ‘the arc of the moral universe’ will bend towards racial justice”.