On Wednesday, we honored the memory of a civil rights icon with the 50th anniversary of Medgar Evers’ assassination and later this summer, we will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. The irony is that any day now the Supreme Court will issue some of the largest civil rights decisions in decades. Depending on what they decide, we could be set back by 50 years or more. Right after the Selma Voting Rights March in 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. appeared on “Meet the Press” where he said this about the critical role of our nation’s justice system:
There are laws that have come in to being that I consider unjust and I think the moral conscience of the Nation considers it unjust. This does not mean that the persons who rendered the decision were unjust people or that they were evil people.
Today, given the conservative bend of the highest court in the land, many of us are not as optimistic as Dr. King once was about their willingness to preserve fairness. One case awaiting a ruling this term is Fisher v. the University of Texas. This is a higher education case where the court must decide whether the school can use race as one factor among many others in the admissions process. Not many are expecting the court to uphold affirmative action and many more are hoping the impact of the decision will be minimal and not overly broad thereby impacting far more than education—extending into employment and business opportunities.
I am uneasy about what the court will decide. You see, as an African-American Woman, I am a beneficiary of affirmative action, both formal and informal programs. Perhaps I would not be sitting here as a lawyer without it.
Affirmative Action is defined as any measure that permits the consideration of race, national origin, sex, or disability—along with other criteria—to provide opportunities to individuals who have either historically or actually been denied those opportunities and to prevent the recurrence of discrimination in the future.
I find myself constantly engaged in discussions—arguments, even—on whether America is post-racial or if people have arrived because we have our first black president in Barack Obama. His election demonstrates just how complicated America really is. Folks now have what’s described as “diversity fatigue” and support for affirmative action has waned, but have you looked around? Disparities for communities of color remain unreasonably high!
There are grave disparities in unemployment, wealth accumulation, and representation in Congress, State Legislatures, and even City Councils. There are disparities in access to education, graduation rates, and education funding. On most fronts, people of color continue to lag behind the majority.
So, I often wonder when listening to all the rhetoric about affirmative action: How can you have bootstraps to pull yourself up and you have no boots? How can you have equal access to education with little to no financial resources? How can you be judged by the content of your character or, in this instance, the content of your report card, when all they see is the color of your skin and the associated stereotypes?
It’s 2013 and we’ve yet to truly overcome. Maybe affirmative action is not the best policy, but it is much better than nothing. I am reminded of President Clinton’s famous remarks about affirmative action policies in 1995, “Let me be clear, affirmative action has been good for America.”
We should have a simple slogan: Mend it, but don’t end it. I pray this nation’s highest court will do the right thing by protecting future opportunities and preserving justice, equal access, and fairness for all Americans.