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Supreme Court’s affirmative action cases are a crash course in gaslighting

With challenges to race-conscious school admissions, the GOP sees a new opportunity to roll back efforts to level the playing field for marginalized people.


In the several decades that Republicans have tried to federally outlaw race-conscious school admissions policies that help diversify college campuses, their arguments haven’t gotten any stronger. 

But times have changed, and Republicans see new opportunity in a Supreme Court that’s chock-full of like-minded conservatives eager to roll back efforts to level the playing field for marginalized people.

That, in essence, explains how we got to the point where we are now, with the court considering two key cases concerning race-conscious admissions policies at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

As civil rights lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill explained, the Supreme Court and numerous lower courts have routinely upheld schools’ right to consider race.

And this isn’t merely for the benefit of the admitted. Education experts across the country have discussed how racially diverse college campuses benefit all students — regardless of race — as well as the campuses themselves, by offering valuable yet underrepresented perspectives. 

But the empirical benefits of race-conscious admissions policies, often categorized as a form of “affirmative action,” don’t appear to matter, given the Supreme Court’s conservative majority. Reality is but a formality to them. And what we’re getting out of this case instead is a crash course in gaslighting. 

Let’s count the ways. 

For one, the organization leading the conservative movement’s latest efforts to dismantle race-conscious school admissions is, in both cases, holding up Asian American students as victims of these policies

But as my NBC News colleague Kimmy Yam has reported, an overwhelming majority of Asian Americans support these policies, a likely and welcome understanding of the common goals shared by nonwhite students seeking access to, and equality on, college campuses. 

Nonetheless, Justice Clarence Thomas, who has acknowledged that affirmative action policies factored into his admission to Yale Law School, claimed not to understand the value of diversity itself.

He posed this question to attorneys defending race-conscious policies:

“I didn’t go to racially diverse schools, but there were educational benefits. And I’d like you to tell me expressly when a parent sends a kid to college that they don’t necessarily send them there to have fun or feel good or anything like that, they send them there to learn physics or chemistry or whatever they’re studying. So tell me what the educational benefits are.”

Thomas’ question ignores the fact that race-conscious policies helped him gain access to those educational benefits. And it falsely assumes admission is solely about benefiting the student, rather than the student and the school. But considering that Yale Law School has touted Thomas as one of its most esteemed graduates, it’s clear the school sees benefits in the diversity he brought to Yale. 

Thomas wrote in his memoir that his Yale degree “bore the taint of racial preference,” but at last check, he hasn’t flushed his mind of the education he received there. Unfortunately for Thomas, denouncing affirmative action measures doesn’t make him any less a beneficiary of them. 

And Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, who has recused herself from the Harvard case because she sits on the school’s board, effectively lanced the argument against race-conscious admissions with this statement about rich kids who get admitted to schools because of their family ties. 

While questioning attorneys who brought the UNC suit, Jackson painted a picture of two students of different races and questioned why a school should be allowed to consider one student’s lineage at the school as a factor in admission but not the lineage of another student whose family was denied that lineage because slavery or discrimination prohibited their ancestors from attending. 

Banning consideration of race means these two students “would have a dramatically different opportunity to tell their family story and to have them count,” Jackson argued

It’s a strong argument that has repeatedly been upheld by courts, including the one hearing it now. The only difference — in fact, the only one that matters — is Republicans have stacked the court with willful pawns in their white supremacist mission. Which means, no matter the argument, they’re almost certain to roll back civil rights and provide a legal basis for schools to ignore, and even reject, diversity as a priority.