It’s become an article of faith among Republicans that racism is running rampant in this country. Racism against white people, that is. Multiple polls conducted over the past five years confirm that many white Americans believe they are routinely discriminated against in employment and education, among other things—simply because they’re white. This country, in their view, is just hellbent on denying them the privileges and opportunities they feel they deserve by birth, by giving Black people, Latinos, Asians, and other racial minorities an unfair advantage over their more “deserving” white counterparts.
However, as noted by NPR’s Don Gonyea (analyzing a 2017 poll conducted by NPR), “while a majority of whites in the poll say discrimination against them exists, a much smaller percentage say that they have actually experienced it.” In short, even though this discrimination almost never has happened to them personally, they’re still convinced it’s happening everywhere. The fact that such “reverse racism” has been scientifically disproven, of course, makes no difference to those predisposed to believe these things. After all, big thinkers like Elon Musk (and even little thinkers, like former Trump advisor and white nationalist Stephen Miller) continually reinforce this perception, so there must be something to it, right?
The reactionary, right-wing majority that currently dominates the Supreme Court certainly appears to sympathize. On June 29, the court’s 6-3 conservative majority effectively shut down the use of affirmative action programs in all institutions of higher learning, both public and private. To do his part, Miller, backed by billionaire-funded think tanks, sent a warning letter to 200 colleges last week, threatening to unleash a wave of lawsuits against any institution that refuses to comply with the Supreme Court’s edict. By all appearances, it appears that the right achieved a great victory in its quest to refashion this country in its own lily-white image.
But how will that work out in practice?
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As Jennifer Rubin, writing for The Washington Post, points out, Chief Justice John Roberts, author of the majority opinion in the case of Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, eviscerating the use of race-based factors for consideration in college admissions, left a giant loophole, possibly unintentionally, in his esteemed legal reasoning.
Rubin quotes Roberts’ key language:
“Respondents’ admissions systems — however well intentioned and implemented in good faith — fail each of these criteria. They must therefore be invalidated under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” Sounds like he means business, right?
However, what he takes away with one hand he immediately gives back with the other: “At the same time, as all parties agree, nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.”
She notes that Roberts rather tortuously proceeded to try to limit how a college could go about “considering” those factors in its admissions decisions. Acceptance could no longer be on the basis of an applicant’s race, but how their race—such as, notably, discrimination—impacted them as an individual is a-okay.
Rubin includes the relevant section of Roberts’ opinion:
[“]A benefit to a student who overcame racial discrimination, for example, must be tied to that student’s courage and determination. Or a benefit to a student whose heritage or culture motivated him or her to assume a leadership role or attain a particular goal must be tied to that student’s unique ability to contribute to the university. In other words, the student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual — not on the basis of race.[“]
As Rubin notes, this essentially allows racism to be put front and center before a college admissions committee without the student’s “race” being a factor per se. So, any savvy college admissions team will still be able to evaluate a prospective applicant based on the racism they’ve experienced, if that student is able to work that experience into a college entrance essay.
Under Roberts’ formulation, then, being profiled by racist police officers, being followed around in a department store for no apparent reason, growing up in a poorer neighborhood because of historical redlining and “steering” by racist realtors, or just about all of the daily, lifelong indignities inflicted on racial minorities by white people and racist white institutions can be massaged into a college application as long as it ties that racial discrimination to the applicant’s personal development, inspiration, or goals. And college admissions teams can still base their decisions to admit a person on that basis.
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As Rubin observes:
That is precisely what disadvantaged minority students will write — and have been writing — in a society still plagued with racism, that virtually all such applicants have faced disadvantages, stereotyping and outright discrimination simply by virtue of the way they appear to the White majority. Only in Roberts’s make-believe world is there a group of minority students who never experienced a smidgen of discrimination (e.g., had less accumulated family wealth because of the legacy of housing discrimination, had to have “the talk” about police encounters, had teachers make assumptions about their abilities) and therefore would be unable to make the sort of case Roberts describes.
Most selective colleges in the U.S. recognize the value of diversity, even if the so-called “conservatives” on this Supreme Court, and a certain fearful segment of white America, do not. Colleges that require essays from applicants typically offer several questions, allowing them the option of selecting which they wish to answer.
With that in mind, here’s a humble suggestion for one such essay question—it’s one that will allow colleges to justify their admission and enrollment decisions based not on a person’s race per se, but on an individual’s experience of racism:
Please explain how racism has impacted your development as a person, impacted or inspired your courage or determination, or motivated you to seek any goal in any aspect of your life.
Those applicants who have actually experienced discrimination and prejudice firsthand will be able to provide detailed responses to such a question; college admissions committees can act accordingly with that information. Those for whom racism is simply not a factor in their lives, or for whom it’s an imagined grievance, will find themselves at a loss and will most likely skip the question altogether.
And again, colleges are free to act accordingly.
And if racism affected a white prospective student, if racial discrimination somehow impacted their life, or inspired their goals, then they are free to write about it. College admissions officers are experienced people, and will no doubt give every individual’s story every consideration it merits. They can still weigh a white applicant’s underprivileged upbringing against a Black applicant’s underprivileged upbringing coupled with the experience of systemic racism, without actually considering the race of the applicants as a separate criteria. Those distinctions will continue to allow colleges to consider racism as a paramount societal evil that motivates an individual and shapes their opportunities and experiences.
As Rubin observes, “Put simply, as long as you allow students to tell their personal story of racism, race will get considered in the admissions process—to the chagrin of the right-wing justices and politicians who cheer this Pyrrhic victory.”
And neither John Roberts, Stephen Miller, nor anyone else will be able to argue with the decision.
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