Content warning: This article discusses slavery and systemic racist violence.
Being a Black, African, and international student in Canada, I have observed the current state of the US as a Roman at the edge of Pompeii, transfixed as Mount Vesuvius boils to a glowing climax. The distance feels safe, and yet, clouds full of ash gather overhead.
The affirmative action ruling by the Supreme Court of the United States on June 27, in the case of Students for Fair Admissions v Harvard, comes as a sign of our times: we have reached a tipping point in the politics of diversity and equity in a racialized America, where ‘too much’ diversity is interpreted as a perversion of the American dream, an invasive plague upon the intellectual and material property of the gatekeepers of power by the unclassed.
The Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) is a nonprofit organization that sought to revoke the “unconstitutional” consideration of race in the college admissions process, so that race or ethnicity neither harms nor helps a student in their pursuit of an education at a competitive institution. As proof of the supposed evils of affirmative action, cases similar to that of Calvin Yang were brought before the Supreme Court, which currently has a conservative majority panel — three of whom were appointed by Donald Trump.
Yang — despite his hard work and faith in the moral reward of the best school for the best student — was rejected by Harvard, along with 97 per cent of applicants. In a statement following the Supreme Court’s decision, Yang proclaimed that the end of affirmative action marked the “promise of new beginning,” a resurgence of the principles of the American Dream. With the battle for a greater America won, Yang took his rejection from Harvard in stride and opted for UC Berkeley.
A society post-Students for Fair Admissions v Harvard implies that to make the perfect American Dream omelet, you ought to break a few Black eggs. The metaphor questions the very origin and evidence of the American Dream as the edict and political gospel that it claims to be.
Like the demarcations of borders, the American Dream seems to be an arbitrary term carved out of thin air. This sentiment only took on the force of an ‘ethic’ because, during America’s maturation at the turn of the modern era, power was still being solely distributed along racial lines: into the hands of white men and away from people of color, especially Black and Indigenous people.
The American Dream suggests virtue, manifest destiny, and fairness. If you are wealthy, it’s because your hard work deserves it; if you’re poor, it’s also what you worked for. I see this as why, in discussions of “fair admissions,” legacy admissions discourse comes last or in a limited capacity that masks the truth: historically, schools mostly benefit white and wealthy families that have historically benefited from racism and the segregation of the past.
These families can afford the best schools, tutors, and extracurriculars for their children, whereas students from lower-income homes or communities that suffer from the social and institutional racial caste system must work twice as hard just to be seen by these institutions. Although legacy admissions are supported through claims of assisting fundraising and community-building, we must reckon with the fact that defending this institution and arguing for fairness in the destruction of affirmative action is to stand upon the graves of Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous human capital.
After the institution of slavery consumed Black bodies as capital for a wealth industry worth $4 billion, Jim Crow laws haunted African Americans through a legal system that continued their racialization as slaves through incarceration, death, and the destruction, alienation, and decentralization of home.
No other group of people in America were racialized as slaves: this is a logic that is directly linked to Blackness through skin colour. I see racism to have manifested as a cause, consequence, and expression of individual and social psychosis; as a sickness, and as generational trauma passed down onto both its victims and perpetrators in the post-racial world that Calvin Yang, Justice Clarence Thomas, and the Republican Party want us to believe in.
What America has today is the phantom pains of slavery and Jim Crow. Here we have the prison system and police force, which are less so instruments of justice and more so tools for the ethnic ordering of America through the incarceration of the Black body to fulfill the nostalgic desire for a free labour slave body. Our social consciousness fails in quiet, nuanced ways so that even racial minorities are driven to hurt one another in competition and to quench the oedipal lust for validation from America’s foremost founding fathers.
The appendix to Justice Lewis F. Powell’s opinion in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke notes that, “If scholarly excellence were the sole or even predominant criterion, Harvard College would lose a great deal of its vitality and intellectual excellence.” In reality, school is about more than just grades. Racial diversity is as important as intellectual diversity, and schools like Harvard bear the responsibility of meeting the demand for the academic world with the demand for social equity.
Further, universities have the advantage of choosing their students since they decide their own social goals and mission statements. None of us has a ‘right’ to get into Harvard, because that is Harvard’s choice to make as it is following its principles. Given this, race-conscious admissions processes are starkly unlike the discrimination that the Students for Fair Admissions proclaim. Michael J. Sandel reminds us that in the era of segregation, race was used as a badge of inferiority — unlike today, where race is recognized for the creation of racial equity, without the malice of caste or creed. Toni Morrison also reminds us that we must dream of being the world we wish to see. Affirmative action was dreaming in action.
This turn against the progress towards racial justice might mean more protection for the white and wealthy in schools and the workplace; the old marriage of racial aesthetics and science renewed. Nevertheless, I believe that talent is distributed equally across demographics and that universities must advocate for the ethos of affirmative action in their recruitment processes. I fear that the cost to work for affirmative action again will be great, but it is a worthy price to pay for justice and the transcendence of racial justice.
Divine Angubua is a third-year at UTM studying history, political science, and creative writing. He is the editor-in-chief of With Caffeine and Careful Thought and a staff writer at The Medium.