Wednesday May 25

COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT CORNER: The Right is Wrong on Race, Again

In its editorial “Race, Harvard, and the Supreme Court” (Jan. 25) praising the Supreme Court for taking up a case challenging diversity initiatives at Harvard and the University of North Carolina, the Wall Street Journal argued that “the progressive zeal for divvying up people by race, ethnicity and sexuality has increased.”  But it is not “progressive zeal” that has divvied people up by race.  That was started long ago and persists to this day as a result of slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, the Ku Klux Klan and its progeny (e.g. Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, QAnon), and persistent structural racism (e.g. exclusionary zoning, reliance on property taxes to pay for K-12 public education, a tax system that treats capital gains more leniently than wages) and much more. Progressives wish they had the power asserted by the Journal. 

The editorial concludes with the right’s favorite Supreme Court quote where Chief Justice Roberts stated in the 2007 case of Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 striking down voluntary school desegregation programs in Seattle and Louisville, “The way to stop discriminating on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”  Is it really that difficult to distinguish between the historic and contemporary policies and practices that have had the intent and effect of perpetuating racial inequality (e.g.  school segregation, legacy admissions, voter suppression) and those efforts aimed at ameliorating levels and costs of racial inequality (e.g. voluntary school desegregation, diversity and inclusion initiatives)? Apparently, it is for the Chief Justice.

But Lyndon Johnson understood the difference as he articulated in 1965 when he gave the famous commencement address at Howard University and noted:

But freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please.

You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, “you are free to compete with all the others,” and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.

Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.

This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.

Justice Blackman picked up this message in the 1978 case of The Regents of University of California v. Bakke, where the Supreme Court concluded race could be one of several factors taken into consideration in college admissions, when he wrote, “In order to get beyond racism, we must first take race into account.”

Removing barriers to opportunity is not equivalent to creating those barriers.  Hopefully the current Supreme Court will learn this simple lesson.


Gregory D. Squires is Professor of Sociology and Public Policy & Public Administration at George Washington University.  His column will be coming throughout 2022.

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