By Daniel Rose
The U.S. Supreme Court decision announced on June 29, 2023 – declaring academic determinations based on skin color to be unconstitutional – ended a half-century of ‘affirmative action’ that has had profound impacts on American life. The current all-time lowest public approval rating of the Supreme Court is an accompanying phenomenon.
The concept of U.S. governmentally approved efforts to help disadvantaged descendants of former slaves was first enunciated in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson in a commencement address at Howard University, the nation’s most prominent Black institution. In a landmark evocation of his goals for “The Great Society”, Johnson made clear his administration’s desire to help address the fierce handicaps of generations of subjugation. A dedicated liberal who was also a tough-minded politician, the President knew the price his policies would exact from ‘Dixiecrats’. As Caucasion Southerners deserted their traditional Democratic Party and joined the Republicans, Johnson commented to Bill Moyers, “We may have lost the South for your lifetime – and mine”.
A liberal U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1978 (University of California vs. Bakke) legally approved the preferential treatment of minority students; and in 2003 another landmark occurred. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor cast the swing vote in the Bolling decision permitting affirmative action; and her judicial opinion stated her belief that “25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary”. Some of us disagree, but time will tell.
The present conservative-dominated U.S. Supreme Court has just ruled that racial preferences are unconstitutional, violating the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. (Commentators have noted that colleges may still give preferential admission treatment to children of faculty and of alumni, as well as to subsidized student athletes.)
In a 6-3 decision in which the court’s Republicans supported Chief Justice John Roberts, the view was expressed that color-blind affirmative action based on economic class would be the appropriate approach to helping the disadvantaged. The majority view advocates race-neutral policies based on wealth, income and perhaps on health.
As one who has for over half a century devoted personal time, treasure, thought and effort to stimulating the upward socio-economic mobility of deprived minorities, I confess to being dismayed by current attitudes, such as reluctance to help beleaguered students saddled with crushing academic debt. . As a congenital optimist, however, I share Rev. Martin Luther King’s conviction that “ the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice”, leading to a society that is just and fair, and also compassionate.