Race “still” matters

IBy Aaron Marcus It has been precisely 25 years since the U.S. Supreme Court decided Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the first and only case to discuss the constitutionality of affirmative action in public educational institutions – until now. Allan Bakke involved a claim of reverse discrimination where a young white student had been denied acceptance at one of the California school system’s medical schools. He claimed he was being discriminated against because the medical school reserved 16 places for minority students, thereby prohibiting him, or any other white students, to compete for those spots. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed, and in a somewhat ambiguous opinion, Justice Lewis Powell stated reserving spots for students amounted to a quota system, which unfairly denied or accepted students based solely on their race. However, despite holding that the quota system violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause, Powell determined that certain racial preference systems would probably withstand a challenge.

Last Monday, in a somewhat surprising move, the U.S. Supreme Court not only found that a tailored affirmative action program was constitutional, but found it desirable. It is now clear that educational diversity is a compelling governmental interest that justifies affirmative action. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the surprise fifth swing vote, wrote: “Effective participation by members of all racial and ethnic groups in the civic life of our Nation is essential if the dream of one Nation, indivisible, is to be realized Ö Just as growing up in a particular region or having particular professional experiences is likely to affect an individual’s views, so too is one’s own, unique experience of being a racial minority in a society, like our own, in which race unfortunately still matters.”

O’Connor’s strong and impassioned words reflect a reality of life which is for now, and for the reasonably foreseeable future, a testament to the lack of racial harmony in U.S. society. Her words, however, should be taken with an air of caution. Implicit in the opinion, O’Connor portends to view racial differences as an “unfortunate” reality, hinting that her dream is to see race as a completely irrelevant detail of everyday life and experiences.

I query whether that is really the goal we seek? Race still matters, not just because our society is still choked with bigotry, discrimination, oppression and unequal access, but also because like many people’s of the world, race is one of many distinguishing features that contributes to an exciting and flavorful planet full of differing histories, ideas and perceptions.

Recognizing race is a powerful testament to the beauty of difference, and an essential element in remembering our past. Memories of the past are carried not only by historians, but also by glimpsing the world around us and recognizing the changes that have enhanced all our lives. To see race reminds us of the horrors and utter stupidity of those who viewed race as a barrier, instead of a meaningful expression of human greatness. Seeing race sends the message, “never forget.”

As with the Holocaust, it is important to respect the human achievement of overcoming such incredible anti-Semitism, just as it is important to reflect that it was a flawed view of racial differences that led to segregation and hundreds of years of slavery.

Differences enhance experience and enjoyment of life. Imagine a world where everyone wore the same green shirt. Really boring, right? Race should be embraced. Our goal should to have race matter not because it reflects inferior or superior qualities, but because it both humbles and inspires. It humbles all of us to know that a feature such as racial differences can cause so much fear and hatred, which goes to show no human is immune from propaganda and illogical conclusions. It should, however, also inspire us to fulfill a dream of humankind and pursue the creation of a world that embraces difference and people respect one another.

Aaron Marcus is a third year University law student. He can be reached at [email protected]