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Affirming Affirmative Action

When I was a high school student, I had clear-cut ideas about affirmative action: it wasn’t fair. Inspired by that great principle of American Democracy that “all men are created equal”, it seemed simply unjust that students who might not otherwise be as qualified as others should be granted admission to top universities on the basis of their racial background. If all people were created equal, then objective measures should be the only standards used for admission, employment and more: anything else was simply unfair.

This was a remarkably easy conclusion for a young white male teenager of privilege to reach in the comfortable confines (if not ivory tower) of an upper-class suburb. While I knew about the generalities of injustice in the world, and had been taught by my parents’ actions how to see to the needs of the vulnerable, I never questioned the role that the accident of birth plays in determining so many lives. I imagined a talented teenager from the South Bronx had as good a chance of becoming a corporate CEO as an equally endowed student in Great Neck. I never considered that children growing up in poverty might go through half the school day hungry, until they eat their first food of the day at a federally-funded lunch program; so how could I have imagined the impact that severe hunger (let alone the emotional angst that might have accompanied it) on a student’s academic performance? After school, I could choose between being a Jock or a Theater Geek; there were no gangs tempting me to drop the charade of public education to live a different life on the street.

Not knowing any of these things, I certainly couldn’t have encompassed the remarkable role race often plays in issues of poverty and policy. I didn’t dwell on the inherent biases of SAT and ACT tests; I wasn’t equipped to consider how a growing test prep industry turned these purported examinations of intelligence into an inquiry of the financial resources students’ families had to properly prepare them to game the system. I had learned about the victories of (my personal hero) Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and honestly (and naively) thought that Civil Rights in America had been secured for all.

There was a lot I didn’t know when, as a teenager, I believed Affirmative Action was wrong. I rejected this unfair policy because I genuinely didn’t know the world wasn’t fair. My textbooks and privileged reality prevented me from learning just how unfair our world, our nation, is for so many people.

Our world remains unfair. And, this morning, I woke up to the sad news that for those in our nation who tend to be the disproportionate victims of injustice, the balance has skewed even further against them. Our Supreme Court, in a 6-2 decision, upheld a Michigan constitutional amendment that bans affirmative action in public universities. Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority, stakes out a position as naïve and uniformed as the one I have outgrown since high school: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” It sounds as perfect and tautological as any argument ever mounted. And it works very well if you are male, white and privileged.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANot surprisingly, our Court’s two female Justices dissented from this disappointing decision. Justice Sotomayor, herself the beneficiary of Affirmative Action policies, recast Roberts’ ruling: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race,” she wrote, “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.”

When I was a child, I had dewy optimistic eyes that looked at our nation through its lofty rhetoric and aspirational ideals. Part of meaningful maturation is opening our eyes to the world around us and allowing reality to challenge our preciously held positions. With a ruling made, in my opinion, with six sets of eyes widely shut, our Supreme Court yesterday made it harder for all of us to overcome the unfortunate effect of centuries of racial discrimination in America.

Rabbi Seth M. Limmer is rabbi of 
Congregation B’nai Yisrael of Armonk, New York.