Pulling the Ladder Up Behind You
I am old enough to remember what it was like to go to college with black people. Unfortunately, my own children will know no such thing. In two cases brought by conservative students applying to Harvard and the University of North Carolina, the Supreme Court last Thursday struck down decades of legal precedent and effectively ended the consideration of race in college admissions. Doing so will have far-reaching implications on college racial demographics, as universities go back to looking as vanilla white as they did in the 1950’s. But don’t worry- they can’t take back Clarence Thomas’s Yale law degree. He gets to keep that, even as he votes to deny it to so many others.
In fairness, affirmative action is a tricky issue for many. On the one hand, colour-blindness should be a national aspiration. We should be actively creating a society where race is not a determining factor and people are instead judged relative to their own merits. As Thomas himself put it in his concurring opinion in this case, affirmative action can be seen as, “an insult to individual achievement and cancerous to young minds seeking to push through barriers, rather than consign themselves to permanent victimhood.” If we are looking for true equality in our society, shouldn’t we, conservatives like Thomas suggest, be removing race from college admissions decisions? Equality is, in the American sense of it, equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes. And didn’t we prove America was no longer racist when we elected Obama president?
But the problem that yields comes in the form of what equal opportunity means. Demographic data tells us that black and brown children are born into significantly lower income levels and that these increased rates of poverty directly translate into the reduced educational opportunities these children have access to during their formative childhood and adolescent years. Black and brown families generally live in less-affluent neighbourhoods where the schools receive less funding even though the obstacles to learning are greater. These families have less time and outside resources to devote to their children’s educational development. Even their nourishment and stress levels factor into this equation, which clearly dictates time and again that these brown and black children are at a pronounced disadvantage when it comes to elementary and secondary school education. So how does this represent equality of opportunity?
It doesn’t. Particularly for black folks, for whom there has been a long and tedious cycle of systemic racial oppression precipitated by the recurring damages of slavery, there is a constant struggle to win a race where your opponent is given a massive head start. Worse yet, if you lose, your children get burdened with the same disadvantage you had. And so the cycle continues from one generation to the next. Affirmative action was meant to end it.
And that’s just it- affirmative action has been remarkably successful in levelling the playing field of economic opportunity for many black and brown students by allowing them to compete fairly against their white counterparts. By granting preferential treatment within the college admissions process to brown and black students who were incredibly bright minds but whose college profile did not always reflect that brilliance, colleges were able to level the playing field so that college campuses accurately reflected the racial demographics of our nation as a whole. In 2018, the college enrolment rates for black students (37%) were statistically equivalent to those of white (42%) and brown (36%) students. The slight push of affirmative action granted equal access to colleges and universities for black students who were then able to afford that possibility. One of them was Clarence Thomas.
As Thomas himself suggested in an interview, “God only knows where I would be” if not for the affirmative action he benefitted from in attending Holy Cross and Yale, going on to say that it was “critical to minorities and women in this society.” Yes, back in 1983 when Thomas was named chairman of the EEOC, he understood how he had personally benefitted from the very policies he voted to undo last Thursday, “These laws and their proper application are all that stand between the first 17 years of my life and the second 17 years.” Thomas knows that he benefitted from affirmative action. And statistics bear him out. Prior to the Supreme Court ruling last week, nine states have voted to outlaw racial considerations in college admissions decisions. Schools where affirmative action policies were in place had a per capita black representation that was just about double of those schools subjected to affirmative actions bans. With this recent ruling outlawing racial considerations in colleges and universities throughout the United States that is certain to dramatically lower the minority enrolment numbers at schools across the country. That’s because affirmative action policies give black and brown students equal access to education. So why would Thomas now be depriving the young black people of today the same opportunities that he himself had when he was their age?
Well, I guess the obvious answer is that Clarence Thomas is a big, fat douchebag. Like most folks who decide to pull the ladder of opportunity up after they have scaled the wall of systematic oppression, Thomas regales in the self-righteousness of feeling that he has earned his place where others have not. But somewhere hidden behind that false facade of moral superiority lies a man who knows that he is screwing over generations of black Americans all so that he can continue to pander to the white billionaires like Harlan Crow that line his pockets so that he will support their white privilege whenever it comes before the court. And like the obedient puppy dog obeying his master, Thomas is only too happy to accede.
Am I happy about this decision? Of course I’m not. I want my two very white children to experience diversity when they head off to college. But at least now they’ll have an easier chance of getting in.
Steven Craig is the author of the best-selling novel WAITING FOR TODAY, as well as numerous published poems, short stories, and dramatic works. Read his blog TRUTH: In 1000 Words or Less every THURSDAY at www.waitingfortoday.com