In most Western countries, the ideals of our societies are works in progress, to put it as nicely as possible, and of course many of those over the centuries who have wound up on the wrong side of the ledger don’t think the niceness is necessary. We may be at the cusp of a new era where this reality is ignored – and progress reversed.
The US Supreme Court made plain its status as a coldly atavistic force in the country’s social landscape last week. It did it by turning away from, by refusing to give notice to, the vulnerable and victimised. That’s not what the phrase “justice is blind” is supposed to mean.
The most far-reaching of the several rulings it released effectively outlaws affirmative action at universities in America. The case, brought against Harvard and the University of North Carolina, brought to an end the measures institutions of higher learning take to diversify their student bodies. (To be blunt, that’s a euphemism for “admit more African-American students than their strict admissions standards would otherwise permit”.) The court, in an opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, flatly outlawed race as a consideration in university admissions.
I’ve seen the admissions debate over my whole life. I can offer some insight into how this radical overturning of a core societal precept was allowed to happen. It began in 1978 when a prospective medical student named Allan Bakke, who was white, sued the University of California (which I attended), arguing that he was excluded by less-qualified black students.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that barriers to equal education were a primary factor in the disadvantaged status of blacks in the US. But the cases that created the affirmative action framework were not as ringing as they might have seemed. In the Bakke case and others, the court said racial quotas were not allowed. Race was permitted to be a factor – but not a determinative one.
Nonetheless, the right quickly focused on a line of attack. Here’s how it went: “We all believe that organisations can’t discriminate on the basis of race, right … ?” Yes, and … “Then you must agree that schools should not be allowed to let people in just because they’re black. That discriminates against white people!”
The flaw in this argument has to do with a difference of focus, and a lack of context. Imagine folks queued up for their jobs outside a factory. The line moves forward, but each time a black guy approaches the door, someone runs up and pushes him into a ditch. (This is actually not all that outlandish a metaphor for how this played out in a lot of places, but that’s another story.)
A court would, of course, put an end to the practice. Now, if you zoom in on the next white guy in line (and try not to pay attention to all the black guys in the ditch), the sudden change in the rules might indeed seem unfair. But, in fact, his real place in line was much farther back. He only got to where he is because all of the black guys in front of him got pushed out of the line.
But in the mind of many Americans, decade after decade, the plight of this poor white guy became the centre of the affirmative action debate. I grew up in the conservative state of Arizona, and I heard this countless times from my father and his friends. “White guys can’t get jobs any more!” they’d say. (For the record, the black population in the state was tiny at the time.)
When I lived in Washington, president George W. Bush had a press secretary named Tony Snow, who had previously been a journalist. He gave an interview talking about his experience working at National Public Radio. He hadn’t worked there long, he said, because he was a white guy. You did better there, he said, “if you had a name that sounded like it was made up by Rudyard Kipling”.
Last time I checked, I was a white guy. I was brought into NPR, and did quite well, on a pretty high level – with no previous broadcast journalism experience. I worked closely with some of those whose names Snow was referencing – a pretty small percentage of the staff, of course. To this day, I flush with anger when I think of the people whose hard work over many years brought them to a decent and respectable position, only to have their very names ridiculed, and their positions questioned, by the casual racism of Snow, a man sitting smugly at the feet of the most powerful person in the world.
Now we see those same sentiments enshrined in a Supreme Court decision. Is there a moral? Perhaps this: those on the side of fairness and decency might consider what happens when right-wing talking points are left to stew and fester in the population. Ignoring them and hoping they will go away doesn’t work.
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