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Affirmative Action and Racism -- The Court Speaks: 'Heal Thyself'

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Racism is a thing of the past, of course. That's why the news is filled with stories about racism. Like the remarkable story of Cliven Bundy, a Tea Party hero who thinks that poverty stems from not enough negroes learning to pick cotton; or LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who is emphatically not racist, except when it comes to his "girlfriend" consorting with "black people;" Or the majority of the United States Supreme Court, which deems affirmative action unworthy of defense, since, in their calcified view, there is scarce evidence of any disadvantage for America's children of color.

I'll dispense with Bundy and Sterling, as too much ink has already been spilled on these decrepit fossils.

Justices Roberts, Scalia et al are the more dangerous breed, as they misread the reality of race in America, and their privileged musings set back racial justice many decades.

Here is a very brief précis of the Court's ruling: The question at stake was not affirmative action per se. It was whether the citizens of Michigan had the right to ban public colleges and universities from using affirmative action to achieve greater racial equity and opportunity. By Constitutional Amendment in 2006, Michigan voters prohibited affirmative action and the Roberts Court upheld the ban in this month's ruling.

Three important precedents should have informed the case, but the Roberts Court found them unpersuasive. In two of these cases, voters had overturned legislation that prohibited overt discrimination in real estate. The Supreme Court decided that citizens could not perpetuate explicit racism by overturning laws that remedied blatant injustice. The third case dealt with school busing in Seattle. Again, the Court decided that citizens could not perpetuate obviously destructive segregation and inequality by using the ballot box to overturn justice. (It is worth noting that several of today's justices would have settled those cases differently as well, showing just how regressive this Court is.)

So, the Court recognizes that citizens may not overturn laws or policies that protect people of color from being beaten over the head by a 2x4. But the Court refuses to restrict the rights of the majority to deny proper treatment to remedy the deadly cancer of racism. For folks of color this distinction is insignificant. Whether by the bludgeon of explicit discrimination in housing, or the suffocating cancer of inequitable opportunity, racism is racism. The more serious issue is the latter, but here the Court decided that the will of the people prevails. They simply can't see, or choose not to see, the malignancy.

In the dozens of opinion pieces I've read, or the hundreds of comments that follow, it seems clear that most folks, including many on the political left, agree with the decision. The most common chant is that class, not race, should be the target of affirmative action. This point of view, while understandable, rejects the idea that racism exists entirely independent of class-based disadvantage. This competition is tragic. Pitting one disadvantage against another will not advance justice in our country.

But another aspect of this cultural and social argument is the red herring of white suffering. To believe the righteous indignation of affirmative action's opponents, one must conjure an image of tens of thousands of white children abandoned at the curb of higher education, sobbing as they drag their tattered duffle bags home, their hard-earned places in America's meritocracy forever lost to "less qualified minorities."

This is nonsense. The entire notion of merit is based on various artifacts of white privilege. It is as though test scores, perfect grades and participation in the world of extra-curricular privilege are an absolute representation of merit. Standardized tests remain skewed toward the cultural and cognitive experiences of privilege. A perfect GPA may indicate a propensity for an eating disorder more accurately than it indicates creativity, passion or integrity. And most students of color are too busy surviving and too poor to be choosing between community service in Tanzania or a summer searching for fossils in the Bauru Basin of Brazil.

In the complex mess of admission to college and universities, it's not hard or important to find examples of poignant perceived injustice. Nearly all kids in America who are rejected by a highly selective college feel the "injustice." And then they get over it and go on with life.

I have two precious granddaughters. I would be deeply disappointed if either complained bitterly about going to a second choice college because she thought a supposedly "less-qualified" student of color was admitted to her first choice.

I don't want my granddaughters to be selfish, entitled brats. I want them to recognize their own privilege and work for social justice, even -- especially -- if it means not always getting your way.