A couple of weeks ago, an anchor on Fox News said that “unfortunately for liberals,” racism is dead. This statement implies that the groups fighting for the affirmative action section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were doing nothing more than looking for a good fight.
Of course, it also implies that when the Supreme Court ruled that states may choose to discontinue affirmative action on Tuesday, April 22, it was a reflection of the “perfection” our country has achieved in a mere 50 years of legal efforts to squelch every last drop of racial prejudice out of the soggy, bacteria-infested sponge that is our country’s racial history.
Three days later, TMZ released an audio clip of comments made by Donald Sterling, the white billionaire owner of the LA Clippers. And in one fell swoop, Sterling reminded all Americans that racism is alive and well.
Sterling’s hateful comments against black people were a terrifying reality check. Just after our Supreme Court weakened a pillar of the Civil Rights Act, which required all universities to admit minority applicants to keep their student bodies diverse and prevent racism from gaining too strong a footing on any campus, we see someone in a position of great financial and cultural power expressing the views that some have recently called “dead.”
Many people were quick to point to the outcry over Sterling’s comments and call this proof that racism is over; if it wasn’t, they said, why would people be reacting in this way? But the only thing the outcry over Sterling has shown us is that overt racism is no longer acceptable on a national stage.
On the other hand, there is still overt racism between people who aren’t wealthy owners of national sports teams, and they certainly don’t face the same consequences and social uproar as Sterling.
This is even truer for covert racism, which is still present on a national level. However, the law does not protect people from this kind of discrimination, particularly because it can be difficult to pinpoint or quantify.
Certainly, racist leanings in college admissions decisions are also difficult to pinpoint or quantify. And this is exactly what affirmative action was created to prevent.
The Supreme Court was quick to say that colleges and universities can still employ affirmative action policies if they want to, as long as their states haven’t passed laws expressly forbidding them, as is the case in Michigan. In his statement for the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that the argument in this case was not about whether or not racial discrimination still exists, but about who has the power to decide how it should be resolved.
The court’s decision was meant to send the message that this power lay with the states and the people. But this statement leaves the door open for the argument that for every decision the Supreme Court has ever made, all of which have been important, the power belonged not with them, but with the people.
Inevitably, we have to ask where we draw the line between the decision-making power of the Supreme Court and the American people, and why there was a line in the first place.