Opinion: An Open Letter to the Supreme Court About the Use of Race in Harvard Admissions

Police and fences guard the Supreme Court in Washington on the day of Roe v. Wade decision. REUTERS/Mary F. Calvert

We might ask why we have a national holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. For me, this day celebrates the symbolism and the work MLK did to advance equality ─ for Black Americans AND for all Americans.

A few years back, Coleman Hughes described MLK as a “colorblind radical”:

“King was a radical Christian, as demonstrated by his commitment to loving his enemies no matter how much they hated him. He was a radical truth-teller, whether that meant telling white moderates that Blacks wouldn’t wait any longer to be granted full rights, or telling Blacks not to make oppression an excuse for failure. Most important, he was a radical advocate, not on behalf of any subdivision of our species, but on behalf of humanity as a whole.”

If we carried over this thought ─ on behalf of humanity as a whole ─ into attempts to fix American society, we might achieve more progress than by favoring a race-conscious approach. We can sense this as the Supreme Court grapples with the ongoing use of race in Harvard University’s holistic assessment in its college admissions process.

The Supreme Court heard a challenge to this race-conscious approach in late October with a decision many months away. By favoring Hispanics and Blacks, Asians were disproportionately disfavored.

The question is whether the narrow exception to the use of race in college admissions, directly opposed to the text of the 14th Amendment and the 1964 Civil Rights Act should finally be closed. As Chief Justice John Roberts stated in 2006, “It is a sordid business, this divvying us up by race.” He added in 2017 that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

Nevertheless, several Supreme Court Justices apparently want to continue to use race in order to fix apparent racial disparities. Justice Sonia Sotomayor spoke to this point of view in 2009, saying that “equality requires effort, and so there are some situations in which some form of race has been recognized by the court.” New Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson affirmed this point of view in a related case involving the use of race consciousness.

“The framers themselves adopted the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment in a race-conscious way,” Jackson said. “They were, in fact, trying to ensure that people who were discriminated against, (the freed former slaves), were actually brought equal to everyone else.”

There is a notable tension, not only for the Supreme Court justices, but throughout our national discourse on the equality seen in the law versus the inequities seen in statistical comparisons. The former emphasizes individuality, merit, and equality of opportunity; the latter emphasizes collective identity, preferences, and equality of outcome.

The United States began with its Declaration of Independence of the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal.” But a Civil War had to be fought to begin the process of making “all” people, slaves in particular, part of that equality.

Enter MLK to face this tension in one of our core values: equality (Constitution) and equity (societal disparities).

Facing this tension in terms of college admissions is coming late to a societal fix. The gap in SAT scores and related metrics related to merit between Blacks and Hispanics on one side and Asians and whites on the other side began much earlier in these students lives. It began in K-12 education.

We already know that several charter school systems have surpassed the metrics of district schools. These charter schools are located in Black and Hispanic communities; the students are chosen by lottery; the parents are committed to work with their children; the results put these students on par, if not ahead, of suburban affluent students. That gap, noted in the university admissions process, has been closed and not in need of race-consciousness unless, of course, the college is involved in intentional discrimination.

We’ve also seen how philanthropy radically upped the educational achievement in the Black communities located in the Southern states. Julius Rosenwald, then the CEO of Sears, Roebuck and Company, help seed some 5,300 schools in Black communities in the early decades of the last century.

In the 1910s an unlikely partnership took aim at the problem of education in the Black community. The man behind it was a former slave from Alabama, Booker T. Washington. He headed the Tuskeegee Institute, which he built into a major Black college by convincing Northern philanthropists to aid a self-help approach he called “industrial education.”

Washington thought that self-help and Northern philanthropy might transform public schools as well. In 1913 he found his angel in the person of Julius Rosenwald, a white Northerner who was the son of a German-Jewish immigrant.

Today, we could imagine the billions in Harvard’s endowment, along with other private universities, following the path of the Rosenwald Schools. Instead of tinkering with an admissions process, these universities can create their own schools in the affected communities or partner with charter schools that have already begun closing the educational achievement gap.

So, too, can the modern philanthropists from Jeff Bezos, Bill and Melinda Gates to Mark Zuckerberg, as well as those companies touting social justice memes. They can help fix that societal disparity ─ not with race-conscious advocacy that breeds divisiveness, but with real efforts, early on in the lives of those who claim injustice when they’ve grown into young adults.

This is the society that Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned. A colorblind society, a society built on the content of our character. But that society doesn’t just happen, there’s work to be done. That work is much harder than giving a racial purpose to the race neutral work of our laws. We don’t need a bandaid, we need to do the heavy lifting.

Joe Nalven is a former associate director of the Institute for Regional Studies of the Californias at San Diego State University.