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With affirmative action ruling, the Supreme Court turns back the clock

Jonathan P Hicks | 4/24/2014, 3:46 p.m.
There have been a good many disappointing decisions to come from the Supreme Court in recent years.
Jonathan P. Hicks

There have been a good many disappointing decisions to come from the Supreme Court in recent years. In one of the most heartbreaking rulings to come from the high court in some time, last summer the court struck down what had been the heart of the historic Voting Rights Act. In that tragic decision, the justices decided to ban Section 5 of the legislation, which allowed the federal government to determine whether various jurisdictions will be allowed to make voting changes in elections.

If that weren’t disheartening enough, this week the court decided to uphold a ban on affirmative action programs at universities and colleges in the state of Michigan. It was another disappointing decision that does little more than turn back the clock on decades of progress in the nation’s racial history. The 6-to-2 decision relegates to the dustbin of history the progress that had been made in opening the doors of higher education to larger numbers of African-American and Latino citizens.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor made the case in impassioned and historically accurate language in her dissent. In responding to the court’s disastrous decision, she pointed out that the Constitution existed during some of the most egregious forms of racial discrimination and that additional work is needed to deal with the consequences of past discrimination.

The Constitution, she said, needed to be enforced with particular vigilance given the history of discrimination and “recent examples of discriminatory changes to state voting laws.”

In a statement of searing and unusually strong dissent, she said, “The one and only policy a Michigan citizen may not seek through this long-established process is a race-sensitive admissions policy.”

Let’s be honest about this: The Supreme Court decision upholding Michigan’s decision to ban affirmative action in the state’s public universities is a dramatic setback. It effectively tosses out as irrelevant centuries of history and the impact that slavery, Jim Crow laws and outright legalized discrimination has had. It somehow pretends that America has moved to a color-blind society where racial discrimination simply doesn’t exist.

But as most African-Americans know all too well, we’re living in an age where voting rights are being assaulted in a way that makes it more difficult for racial minorities to cast their ballots in 2014—not 1964. We’re in a nation where young Black men—Trayvon Martin or Jordan Davis, to name a few—are shot to death simply because of their race.

It was an unfortunate and deeply harmful ruling. Recent statistics have demonstrated that enrollment of Black and Latino students in the most competitive, top-tier universities has declined in the aftermath of bans on affirmative action. Those bans have already taken place in Florida, California and now Michigan.

Some civil rights leaders have called for people to mobilize and undertake referendums in these and other states to reverse the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision. Although a decidedly uphill battle, it is nonetheless a sensible approach given the blow the court struck against affirmative action. If nothing else, it will tell the nation that progressive minds around the country are willing to take action against what is an unreasonable and harmful court decision aimed at turning back the clock on American progress.