Race and the Supreme Court

April 23, 2014

When the United States Supreme Court upheld Michigan’s ban on affirmative action in higher education Tuesday, the justices weren’t just endorsing similar bans in seven other states and inviting future ones. They were, fundamentally, continuing a painful conversation among themselves, and between themselves and the rest of us, on the topic of race in America.

It is a conversation that has been ongoing in its present iteration since the Court’s ideological core shifted to the right almost a decade ago, following the resignation of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in July 2005. She was replaced by a far more conservative jurist, Justice Samuel Alito, the Court’s center of gravity then shifted from Justice O’Connor to the more conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy, and the ascent of Chief Justice John Roberts, who replaced his friend and mentor Chief Justice William Rehnquist, made the Court’s transition complete.                                                                            

And it’s a conversation that, judging from the past few related decisions, isn’t bridging the racial divide in this country but rather splintering it further apart. The Court’s ruling in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend would not have happened 10 years ago. We know this because Justice O’Connor herself, in Grutter v. Bollinger, another case out of Michigan, crafted a 5-4 ruling that gave such remedial programs another shaky decade of life. But now they are as good as dead and, as Justice John Paul Stevens said in another context, the Court’s majority didn’t even have the courtesy to give them a proper burial.

Instead, they will be killed over time by what Justice Anthony Kennedy labeled as the procedural necessity of allowing state voters to impose their will upon minorities. We aren’t ruling on the merits of affirmative action, the justice wrote, instead we are merely allowing the voters of Michigan to render their own judgment about affirmative action. And even though that action commands university administrators not to consider race as a factor in admissions, and even though everyone understands that the Michigan measure was passed to preclude what supporters called “racial preferences,” this democratic choice somehow does not offend equal protection principles under the Constitution. 

Also unthinkable before the Roberts Court kicked into gear would have been its Court’s decision last June in Shelby County v. Holder to strike down the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act. And it would be a mistake today not to connect that ruling to the one in Schuette. They are different sides of the same coin. Shelby County told white politicians in the South that they could now more freely change voting rules to make it harder for minorities to vote. Tuesday’s decision tells white voters that they can move via the ballot box to restrict remedies designed to help minority students and, by extension, communities of color. In each case, the Court sought to somehow extract race out of racial problems.  

In Shelby County, the Court’s majority refused to acknowledge the will of the people as expressed through Congress, which repeatedly had renewed Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act with large bipartisan majorities. Yet in Schuette, the Court’s majority rushed to embrace the will of the people of Michigan as expressed in their rejection of affirmative action. Contradiction? Sure. But what these cases have in common is clear: this Court is hostile to the idea that the nation’s racial problems are going to be resolved by policies and programs that treat the races differently. This is what the Chief Justice means when he says, as he did in 2007, that “the way to stop discriminating on the basis of race is to stop discrimination on the basis of race.”

In a perfect world-- a post-racial world, you might say—the Chief Justice would be absolutely correct. But the problem with his formula is that he seeks to declare it at a time when there is still in this country widespread discrimination, official and otherwise, based upon race. It is present in our criminal justice systems. It is present still in our election systems. It is present economically and politically even though, as conservatives like the Chief Justice like to point out, far more minorities participate in the political process then did half a century ago. And so the idea that now is the time to stop reflecting this reality in constitutional doctrine is to me a dubious one. “Enough is enough,” the essence of Justice Antonin Scalia’s argument, is neither a solution nor a just way in which to end the experiment in racial justice we’ve experienced in America for the past 50 years. Enough may be enough for white Americans. But it’s not nearly enough for citizens of color.

And this surely is what Justice Sotomayor had in mind when she wrote her dissent in Schuette. What is the role of the federal judiciary if not to protect the rights of minorities against the tyranny of majority rule?   

The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination. As members of the judiciary tasked with intervening to carry out the guarantee of equal protection, we ought not sit back and wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society. It is this view that works harm, by perpetuating the facile notion that what makes race matter is acknowledging the simple truth that race does matter.

This is the language that future historians will cite when they cite this cynical decision and this troubling era in America’s racial history. What’s the best evidence that the Supreme Court has it all wrong? Just consider how the two Americas, the two solitudes, reacted to the news of Schuette.  The Chief Justice, in his short and defensive concurrence, accused Justice Sotomayor of “doing more harm than good to question the openness and candor of those on either side of the debate.” But to Justice Sotomayor, and to those who share her view, there is no debate. It’s already over. And the side that usually wins in America clearly has won again.

(Photo: AP)

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.