The recent SCOTUS decision to ban the consideration of race in higher education admissions is part of a fundamental cultural confrontation in the country. The teams are clear. The arguments are old. Progressive versus conservative.
In a reductionist world, the progressive side is in search of a reimagined America, one closer to a more perfect union — a side willing to walk through the ugliness of the nation’s barbarous racial past to build pillars of real justice and fairness. The conservative side is willing — if not seeking — to disavow the reality of, and the national responsibility for, the lingering chains of two and half centuries of slavery and another hundred years of Jim Crow. They want a magic meritocratic America that has only ever been an idea, not a real place. While diversity is the ideological basis of affirmative action dating back to the 1978 Bakke case and is dominating the public discussion now, it is a secondary goal. Justice is first.
I am a child of Black immigrants from Guyana. I was born in New York in 1972, less than ten years after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. I am a member of the first generation of Black people in American history born with full legal rights everywhere in the nation. My generation attended college for the first time in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Prior to 1964, the United States had only ever been a slave and then apartheid state.
For the entire existence of the country until then, there has been legally sanctioned racial discrimination in all facets of American life, including, if not especially, in education. Perhaps important to restate that it was illegal for Black people to learn to read in America for nearly 250 years during slavery. During the following century of segregation under Jim Crow, education for Black people was a sham. Hence the 1954 SCOTUS ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that public educational facilities separated by race are inherently unequal. They were then, and remain today, inherently unequal.
I am on the faculty at Georgia Tech. In Atlanta, there are 10 traditional public high schools in the Atlanta Public School System. In seven of those schools, there isn’t a single white student. As of October 2022, all of the nearly 2,000 white students attend only three of the schools, without exception. The other seven serve students of color only. Almost 70 years after Brown, these schools remain “for colored students only.”
If we hold to the tenets of the Brown decision, these segregated schools are inherently unequal. They are, and we all know it. Black students who succeed at the highest levels often do so despite public education, not because of it. Race is a factor in their education every step of the way. It always has been. Hence the litany of charter schools, corporate altruism and non-profit organizations across the country targeting Black students. The nation knows that race is a deterministic factor in education and has built an entire shadow educational ecosystem based on that fact.
In the College of Computing at Georgia Tech, one of the premier public institutions in the country, over the last seven years, of all the students earning degrees in computer science at all levels – BS, MS, and Ph.D. — only 3 percent have been Black. That, in a city and state that are 50 percent and 33 percent Black respectively. At the University of California, Berkeley, my alma mater, it is less than 1 percent. Black students continue to drag the chains of an educational system that was not designed for their success.
The legal arguments surrounding affirmative action have now run their course. This conservative court has given credence to the magic meritocracy and driven a stake into the heart of affirmative action. The ensuing concern about diversity in higher ed is noble, and I agree with it for all the reasons we repeatedly hear. Justice, however, is the heart of the matter. The country has not come to terms with its past. The magic meritocracy is untethered from reality and historical truth. Confrontation with the fullness of the American past is the only path to justice. Diversity is merely a derivative of that.
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