Some time next year, the United States Supreme Court will decide the constitutionality of using affirmative action programs in college admissions.
While of course no one knows how the court will ultimately rule, some lawyers and pundits believe that it will declare legally invisible the racial divide that haunts this nation. For instance, attorney Ravi Batra says the conservative justices may reason that if Barack Obama can “win the presidency twice, the biggest job of all, without any remedial laws, [minorities] don’t need affirmative action any more and the American dream [is] ‘equally available’ to all.”
As appealing as this reasoning might be, it’s too simplistic an assessment for the court to make. President Obama’s (and to a greater extent America’s) accomplishments are testaments to the value of equal access to and diversity in higher education, rather than a reason to close the book on affirmative action.
I recall one critic of affirmative action in college admissions describing as “incredible” the idea that his daughter might be discriminated against and not be admitted because of her race. Apparently he’s okay with discriminating against his child because she can’t hit a backhand shot or sink a three-point field goal.
Never mind that only 18 percent of African-Americans and fewer than 10 percent of Hispanics over age 25 hold a college degree. Or that even fewer hold postgraduate or professional degrees.
For supporters of affirmative action, President Obama is the embodiment, rather than the culmination, of what America has gained from promoting diversity.
President Obama’s accomplishment is an important “foot in the door” for a biracial (and self-identified black) American. African-Americans and other minorities must now cross that threshold by subscribing to and capitalizing on equal opportunity, a good education, hard work, family support and dedication to excellence.
A day will come when attention to race and gender is no longer necessary to ensure diversity in higher education admissions and employment, but the continued disparities in education funding, high school graduation and college completion unfortunately continue to necessitate affirmative action at this time for the “truly disadvantaged.”
As such, to be acceptable, affirmative action programs must always in the end inure to the benefit not only of the recipients but to American society as a whole. Minorities of privilege should not profit at the expense of their much less advantaged peers. But the goal of diversity applies equally. The presence of the affluent and the disadvantaged on the same college campus or same graduate program, however, benefits all parties, and helps promote the highest and most admirable aims of our country.
My college experience, and that of my peers, black and white, male and female, was much improved as a result. And that experience has no doubt carried over into our subsequent careers.
Conservative SCOTUS justices should want to honor Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s precedent-setting opinion, while deferring to state-devised plans on affirmative action in higher education and employment.
Those justices, including Justice Clarence Thomas, cannot claim to honor “original intent” and to respect states’ rights yet invalidate Texas’ legislatively devised affirmative action plan.
Our nation’s greatest strength is its diversity, inclusivity and willingness to set right lingering inequalities.
Our challenge is to complete within a generation the work that Justice O’Connor said will make the use of racial and gender preferences no longer necessary to ensure diversity in higher education admissions.
I believe that Chief Justice John Roberts and the Supreme Court, perhaps inspired by the millions of American votes that re-elected President Obama, will conclude that the goals of affirmative action and diversity need more time to take root and bear even greater fruits.
President Obama’s success is merely a down payment on the “promissory note” that Dr. King so famously called on America to honor.
Former Assemblyman Michael Benjamin represented the Bronx for eight years.