FROM THE LEFT: SCOTUS affirmative action ruling: Are we going backward or forward?

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By Lance Simmens

Being a child of the Great Society, I was faced with a career decision in college in the early 1970s and opted to devote my energies to public policy rather than law school.

I took an undergraduate course in constitutional law, which would find me studiously reading case law on key civil rights issues, and it inspired my career direction. I marveled at the foresight, dedication, and wisdom of recent Supreme Court decisions, particularly those in the Warren era. Therefore, it is disheartening and difficult to stomach the current clown show of jurisprudence that is leading a retreat to the broken systems that the Warren Court so assiduously attempted to fix over a half-century ago.

And if you think that racial inequities were of a bygone era, think again; it was not that long ago. In 1971 I was reprimanded for using a medical facility restroom in Statesboro, Georgia, as the startled nurse informed me that I had used the “colored restroom.” The following year I was part of a recreational/educational program at the local prison where convicts who would be found clearing the roadways as part of the notorious “chain gang” during the week would come out and play baseball with us on the weekend and then retreat to two separate dormitories — one black, one white. The package store in an adjacent county was split right down the middle with a gate that separated pool tables for blacks and whites. And while great strides have been made in sanctioning overt racism, we are moving in reverse on the systemic side of the issue.

I would decide that the last thing this world needed would be another lawyer and pursued a career in public policy that would last four decades. The Supreme Court is losing the faith and trust of the people, and for good reason. The recent decision on affirmative action is indicative of pure political malfeasance. 

Five years ago, I attended a function sponsored by the Thomas Mann Foundation at the Getty Museum and the opening address was delivered by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the president of Germany. His impassioned speech warned that America, a nation revered by many as the beacon of democratic virtues, was facing perilously divisive times around the concepts of diversity and reason. The outright politicization of our judicial system is currently on full display and is poisoning the roots of our democracy.

The most recent fissure emanates from the Supreme Court on the issue of banning affirmative action in admissions policies in institutions of higher learning, in this particular case admissions to the University of North Carolina and Harvard. Why Chief Justice Roberts insists that the nation’s military academies are exempt from such a ban reflects a measure of confusion that is another topic for another day, but the underlying decision clearly is a giant step backwards. 

Diversity is a concept that is central to our democracy. Diversity is the lifeblood of this nation’s progress, and any actions that have the effect of reducing diversity sentences us to a prison of the past. Certainly this latest maneuver by the Supreme Court continues the dangerous pattern of retrenchment on key societal issues, i.e., reproductive rights, gay rights, and transgender issues. In essence we are witnessing a backwards-looking approach to the future that has its gestation in the womb of misguided political ideology. 

According to Mildred Garcia, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, “Fifty years since the passage of civil rights legislation has not been nearly enough to address or correct more than 350 years of discriminatory practices intended to keep people of color away from higher education institutions or, starting in the 19th century, severely limit their prospects of increasing their educational attainment.”

US News and World Report author Lauren Camera offers the following, “After California voters adopted Proposition 209 in 1996, which barred public colleges and universities from using affirmative action in admissions, Black enrollment at UCLA and UC Berkeley dropped from 7 percent to 3 percent, and roughly 10,000 Black and Latino students disappeared from the University of California system altogether … in Michigan, for example, the share of Black students enrolled at the University of Michigan dropped from about 7 percent in 2006 to just under 4 percent in 2021 — a period of time in which the share of Black college-aged Michigan residents rose from 16 percent to 19 percent.”

Historian Douglas Brinkley has noted in a recent interview that he once asked Ronald Reagan whether he was trying to undermine the New Deal, and Reagan replied “ I don’t want to undo the New Deal, I voted for it four times, I want to undo the Great Society.” Future generations will look back on these times as if we had all lost our collective minds. We can truly make America great again by enforcing, not eviscerating, the Great Society.