The Supreme Court and Race in America

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Last week saw three events that spoke powerfully to questions of justice and race in our nation.

First, the Supreme Court, in a 6-2 decision, upheld the constitutionality of a 2006 initiative approved by Michigan voters that, among other things, prohibited public universities from any consideration of race in their admissions policies. The effect of the Court’s decision is to leave in the hands of a majority of state voters whether or not race can be one factor among others in public university admissions. 

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a long and passionate dissent in which she argued that it goes against our nation’s basic principles to leave the protection of the rights of minorities in the hands of the majority. “Our Constitution places limits on what a majority of the people may do,” she wrote. 

Some commentators, in supporting the Court’s decision, urged that race should play no role in universities’ admission policies. Period. End of story. This argument has a strong appeal. In an ideal world, race would play no role in university admissions policies, with minority applicants being neither advantaged nor disadvantaged.

But before the week was out, two additional events reminded us all that this most definitely is not an ideal world. There was the Nevada rancher, Cliven Bundy, who won nationwide attention for his armed resistance to paying back fees he owed for grazing his cattle on government-owned land. While basking in the media attention, he revealed his deep-seated racism by stereotyping African-Americans as living off welfare and even speculated they might be better off under slavery. Then there was Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, who revealed his own strong racist attitudes in a taped conversation with a girlfriend. 

Michigan students raise awareness on campus of a decline in minority enrollment.  Photo via mlive.com

Michigan students raise awareness on campus of a decline in minority enrollment.  Photo via mlive.com

These latter two events demonstrated how widespread racism is in our society, spanning rants from a crude rancher to a wealthy owner of a major sports franchise who is part of the Los Angeles glitterati.

All of us, therefore, need to ask ourselves this question: In a less-than-ideal world, where racist stereotypes and attitudes still abound, what does public justice demand in the admissions policies of colleges and universities?  Two considerations play important roles in my thinking as I seek to answer this question. One is that African-American young persons who have achieved the academic success needed to meet the standards for admission to college have had to overcome racist attitudes and slights that white young persons have not had to overcome. The same is true of other minorities, especially Native American and Hispanic young persons. Justice Sotomayor referred to this consideration in her dissent last week: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is . . . to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.”

A second consideration in my thinking is that colleges and universities regularly consider a host of factors other than academic achievement in admitting students. Preference is often given to children of alumni and longtime supporters (legacy status as it is called), to those with athletic, music, or drama abilities, and to those with evidences of community involvements or creative abilities. State universities often give preference to out-of-state applicants, since they will add geographic diversity and will pay higher tuition than in-state students. Some of these factors are highly subjective in nature.

In light of the multiple factors that colleges and universities already use in admitting students, and in light of the racism that minority students have had to overcome, public justice says that singling out race as the one factor that may not be considered is wrong. Justice includes correcting past and current wrongs by seeking to balance the scales of justice that have been and continue to be skewed against many African-American and other minority young people. In a broken world where the effects of sin are all too much still with us—including the sin of racism—justice says colleges and universities can and should play a part in overcoming the consequences of racism by taking into account, as one factor among others, the race and minority status of those applying for admission. 

One final note: If the current trend continues of public universities being legally barred from weighing race and minority status in their admissions, then the responsibility of independent colleges and universities increases. Unlike state universities, they are not bound by ill-advised legal restrictions in considering race in admitting students. I hope that independent Christian colleges and universities especially will step up and follow biblical commands to pursue justice by showing a special concern for those who have been wronged.  

-  Stephen V. Monsma is a Senior Research Fellow at the Henry Institute at Calvin College and Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Pepperdine University.