Two decades ago, Thurgood Marshall unexpectedly stepped down from his post as the first black Supreme Court justice in American history. President George H.W. Bush was faced with the task of replacing him, and vowed to preserve his monumental position as the only black justice on the bench.
The man we got, Clarence Thomas, turned out to be one of the most conservative justices in recent history — and in the coming weeks, he may strike down as unconstitutional the very principle that got him his job in the first place.
In President Bush’s mind, and for much of the public as well, there was something critical about maintaining a black presence on the Court. After all, blacks made up a significant portion of the population, and to not have that reflected by perhaps the nation’s most powerful institution would seem somewhat unreasonable.
In just a few weeks, the Court will decide if that concept should extend further, to America’s colleges and universities. In Fisher v. University of Texas, the Court will decide once and for all if the Constitution allows race to be used as a factor in undergraduate admissions. Affirmative action, as it is called, has been upheld twice, in 1978 and again in 2003, but could very well vanish in the coming weeks.
Contrary to popular belief, affirmative action was never upheld by the Court as a means of correcting the wrongs of the past. Instead, the program has been allowed to move forward to meet “the compelling interest of diversity” on college campuses.
The key in understanding this topic is to ask a simple question: What is the purpose of a university? If you believe it is simply to educate young adults and reward high academic achievement, then you have a compelling argument to make that race should have no place in determining admissions.
But anyone who has attended college understands the hollowness behind such a claim. For most young people, attending a university is the first time they will live away from home, fend for themselves and therefore develop in ways that extend far beyond academics. Having diversity on campus, then, becomes a crucial and legitimate means of pushing forward the development of college students by exposing them to a variety of cultures and backgrounds.
Opponents contend that, even if college is about more than academics, affirmative action wrongfully assumes that race is a defining element of identity — that just because you’re black does not mean you differ much from your white counterparts, and thus you would add nothing in the goal of diversity.
But again, this claim carries a certain insincerity. We are unquestionably shaped, in a very significant way, by the color of our skin, and thus the culture we belong to is as well. Many, including Clarence Thomas himself, believe in a race-blind constitution – one that ignores any question of race or identity. I understand why some find such a reading virtuous, but to neglect the factors that shape our identity is simply disingenuous.
For this reason, Brown, Cornell, Harvard, Dartmouth, MIT, and UPenn, along with over 50 Fortune-100 companies, the Boston and New York State Bar Associations, and even the National Association of Basketball Coaches, have all written to the court saying the same thing: “The pursuit of diversity in higher education remains a compelling state interest.”
There is no way to know for sure how the Court will rule, but one things remains clear: We are a nation that has long been strengthened by our diverse culture, and that should be reflected and embraced in our highest institutions.