The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Monday to decide whether to throw college affirmative action programs in the dustbin of history, and the highest court in the land appears poised to scrap the policy. We have the most diverse Supreme Court we have ever seen, yet it features an ultra-conservative majority that seems well-suited to upholding white male supremacy.
This court, which harkens back to the days of Dred Scott v. Sandford — which said Black people “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect” — and Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld the “separate but unequal” conditions of Jim Crow segregation — is eroding our rights every day and may soon end affirmative action.
And if they do, you can thank Edward Blum. Blum, head of the group Students for Fair Admissions, is behind the anti-affirmative action lawsuit before the court, which will look at the affirmative action admissions policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina. Lower courts have found the schools have legally used race as one factor among others in maintaining a diverse student body.
But Blum, like the broader right-wing project, has been chomping at the bit to eliminate these programs. After all, he has brought over two dozen cases in federal court to challenge the use of race in higher education and voting rights. This is a man who has devoted his life to fighting and destroying racially conscious laws meant to even the playing field. This is about people who want to ensure that even bare-minimum programs for racial justice, diversity, equity and inclusion are cast aside so that this is once again a country solely for, of and about white men. Like the good ol’ days when we knew our place.
And Black people and other people of color, the most marginalized and disenfranchised, are just out of luck and supposedly just have to deal with it.
The University of North Carolina, a state institution that admitted its first Black student 70 years ago, still faces challenges enrolling Black men, Native Americans and Latinx students. Its affirmative action program is crucial, given the long history of systemic racism and white supremacist exclusion UNC has practiced for most of its history. North Carolina Solicitor General Ryan Park argued that “diversity is central to the education it aims to provide the next generation of leaders in business, science, medicine, government and beyond.”
Blum believes UNC’s affirmative action program is racially discriminatory, violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and the 14th Amendment’s equal protection guarantee. And he also argues Harvard’s affirmative action program amounts to an illegal quota system that denies opportunity to high-achieving Asian-American students. Notice how he and other conservatives not only seek to edge out Black and brown students who are already underrepresented and disadvantaged in colleges but also hope to drive a wedge among groups of color and undermine racial solidarity by designating some groups as unworthy and unqualified — Black and Latinx — and others — the Asian-American/Pacific Islander community — as hardworking “model minorities.” All of these groups do and should work together to combat racial, economic and social injustice, but you see how white supremacists who care nothing about the needs of Asian-American students will attempt to divide and conquer.
Like other right-wing warriors against racial justice such as Justice Clarence Thomas, Blum believes race should not be involved in it and we should just be colorblind. Of course, those conservatives who misinterpret and attempt to corrupt the quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — and say we should judge people not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, the way Dr. King would want it — tend to advocate for policies that uphold white privilege and exclude melanated people from basic rights, the things you’re allowed to do when you’re a citizen and a full human being.
Blum, who is Jewish and whose family experienced antisemitism in this country, should know better. And yet, he is a one-man crusade against affirmative action who has played the long game, with eight lawsuits in the Supreme Court to undermine Black people since 1996. Blum founded his Project on Fair Representation in 2005 and represented Abigail Fisher, a (mediocre) white applicant who claimed the University of Texas at Austin rejected her admission and discriminated against her because of her whiteness. In 2016, the high court sided with the University of Texas.
Over the years, the court has left affirmative action in place, but Blum may have found a friendlier court to do his bidding. A victory for Blum could spell doom not only for affirmative action in higher education but for race-conscious policies in employment as well.
“The relief Blum seeks is narrowly focused on what has always been his objective: a prohibition on any awareness of race in college admissions,” wrote Sarah Hinger, senior staff attorney for the ACLU Racial Justice Program. Hinger believes Blum is cynically using the Asian-American community to eliminate diversity on college campuses. “If Blum gets his wish, statistical projections show that white applicants will be the primary beneficiaries. Not talking about race doesn’t erase discrimination; it reinforces the privileges of white applicants by ignoring the ways in which deep-seated structural racial inequality impacts individuals.”
Notice that Blum is also opposed to voting rights, which is no accident. As the ACLU noted, Blum challenged redistricting in places such as Texas that would favor Black and Latinx voters, and he was the person behind Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted the Voting Rights Act. And now, with weakened voting rights enforcement, white vigilantes of the Jan. 6 variety feel emboldened to use their guns to scare Black people from voting and use elected office to erase Black voters from the map and from the rolls.
After all, Jim Crow segregation is an all-or-nothing proposition. The goal is to keep Black people and other people of color disempowered — out of education, out of the market and out of power. Hoping to relegate us to the sidelines and out of the game, so they believe we will be neutered and rendered unable to fight for ourselves.
And if Blum gets his wishes, the Supreme Court will eliminate affirmative action in college admissions. But they won’t end it there because they are only getting started.