A Lack of Affirmative Action Isn’t Why Minority Students Are Suffering

The Supreme Court let states ban race as a factor in college admissions. That’s a good first step toward race-blind education that can focus on root problems.

Douglas McFadd/Getty

Shortly before his assassination President Kennedy addressed the nation on June 11, 1963 to explain his decision to federalize the Alabama National Guard to integrate the University of Alabama. In part, Kennedy offered:

It ought to be possible in short for every American to enjoy the privileges of being an American, without regard to his race or his color. In short, every American ought to have the right to be treated, as he or she would wish to be treated…Race has no place in American life or law.

To this end, the Supreme Court’s decision Tuesday in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action upholding the ban on affirmative action in public-university admissions takes America one step closer to President Kennedy’s dream. In a 6-2 decision, the Court held that a ballot initiative by Michigan residents to bar the use of race preferences as a factor of admission was constitutional.

On a Court that has consistently issued closely contested opinions—often in 5-4 decisions—the overwhelming majority of the Justices recognized the importance and the legality of people in several states like Michigan to prohibit the use of race as a factor in admissions. Despite the commentary to the contrary which is likely to follow in the coming days, the Court did not address whether colleges or universities could use race as a factor of admission—they wisely left the decision to the voters in individual states to make such a decision.

Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy opined:

Here, the principle that the consideration of race in admissions is permissible when certain conditions are met is not being questioned…. The decision by Michigan voters reflects the ongoing national dialogue about such practices.

Indeed it does. How have we gone so far astray as a nation where we would sanction the use of discrimination in favor of one individual at the expense of another based on the color of his skin? How can some speak out against the racially neutral practice of requiring the presentation of identification to vote as being racist while having no problem of discriminating on the basis of race to admit students to colleges and universities? A noxious double standard is in play here.

I do not question the conviction or sincerity of those who believe that affirmative action is a necessary tool to address past discrimination in a country not far removed from Jim Crow and other forms of racism utilized to keep blacks from being treated as equal citizens. What I do question is the validity of the mindset as expressed by Justice Sotomayor in her dissenting opinion that sanctions discrimination on the basis of skin color—even if her stated goal is a noble one. Here, Justice Sotomayor wrote:

…Without checks, democratically approved legislation can oppress minority groups. For that reason, our Constitution places limits on what a majority of the people may do. This case implicates one such limit: the guarantee of equal protection of the laws.

I take strong exception to the notion that a voter ballot initiative in Michigan to eliminate the consideration of race—and view all applicants based on their academic and extracurricular achievement—is oppressive of minority groups while limiting the Equal Protection provisions in the Bill of Rights. President Kennedy was prescient in his speech more than a half century ago when he touched on the very issues Justice Sotomayor addressed.

Our 35th president recognized that students should be allowed to learn in institutions of higher learning in which they were qualified to attend—not based on their skin color but on their record of achievement. In the aforementioned speech on civil rights, Kennedy noted:

To give a chance for every child to be educated to the limit of his talents. As I’ve said before not every child has an equal talent or an equal ability or equal motivation. But they should have the equal right to develop their talent, and their ability and their motivation to make something of themselves.

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Kennedy’s remarks years ago should be used as the true “teachable moment” to have an honest discussion about race in America today in light of the Supreme Court’s decision. We ought to have an honest conversation on many of the factors that impede the academic development of children across America—particularly in our communities of color. Is it racist to point out that with an out-of-wedlock birthrate of more than 70 percent, many black students will be raised by a single parent—usually their mother—which could well condemn them to a cycle of dependency and poverty?

Are we really preparing the next generation of minority students to be accepted by our best colleges (and graduate) by shuffling them from grade to grade, often in failing schools that do not provide sufficient foundations in English, math, science, and civics? The Supreme Court decision has provided us a unique opportunity to move forward together as a nation where we can embark on a long and difficult path forward to ensure our students are given an equal opportunity to learn—regardless of the color of their skin color—to achieve the American Dream.