June 30, 2023
Statement on the Supreme Court decisions on affirmative action
Yesterday’s Supreme Court landmark decisions regarding affirmative action, making it unlawful for colleges and universities to take race into consideration as a specific basis for granting admission and overturning longstanding precedent that has benefited Black and Latino students in higher education, are a setback in our quest for equity and a blow to the legacy and progress of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The decisions clearly reflect a super-majority conservative wing of the Supreme Court that seems unwilling to accept systemic racism’s extraordinary power in denying the constitutional promise of equality for all.
Numerous studies have shown the importance of higher education in attaining better life outcomes. This decision pushes highly qualified students of color further back from the starting line and asks admissions officials to pretend that skin color does not matter in America, when in reality it has been the dominant factor perpetuating systemic inequities that have stunted the progress of Black and Brown communities in this country for generations.
The discussion around affirmative action is oversimplified. It ignores the lack of opportunity that burdens students of color from their earliest school days. It ignores the fact that access to high quality schools that prepare students for college is not evenly distributed across communities. Ignoring race in admissions ignores childhoods of systemic, generational inequity in education that denies young men and women of promise the opportunity to realize their full potential.
To quote Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson in her dissent, “Deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life. And having so detached itself from this country’s actual past and present experiences, the Court has now been lured into interfering with the crucial work that UNC and other institutions of higher learning are doing to solve America’s real-world problems. No one benefits from ignorance.”
Racism is a cancer. It will not simply go away if ignored; it will spread and consume our nation. It must be treated aggressively through programs that eradicate historical systems of inequity. Programs like affirmative action, implemented only out of the recognition that the playing field is not level for people of color, have been instrumental in advancing America’s global leadership in every aspect of our society.
In states where affirmative action has already been banned in college admissions, we have seen the enrollment of students of color decline yearly, even as they make up a larger proportion of public schools in those states. Simply put, statistics show that Black and Brown students are denied higher education opportunities at top universities without leveling factors like affirmative action.
What is most concerning now is the lack of a plan to address inequities in higher education that are then translated to the workforce and future generations. And so, it is on us. We must emulate the resolve and the resiliency of the Civil Rights generation to develop better, more sustainable solutions and to champion legislation that can eradicate the cancer of racism in our country and disrupt the inequities that have perpetuated generational barriers to opportunity. We must more intentionally continue the work to correct injustices in our public schools so that the lack of equal opportunity in childhood is not perpetuated into higher education and adulthood.
We must continue the work to end over 400 years of institutionalized inequity to realize the land of opportunity our nation yearns to be.
Woodrow Keown, Jr.
President & COO
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center