Rolling us back: Beyond the outrage

It is no longer hyperbole to say that the United States Supreme Court is marching us closer to the return of yesteryear. A time that many of us have only heard about from older relatives or read about—definitely not the “good old days” for most people.

Last year around this time, the court reversed Roe v. Wade, which ended the federal right to abortion and gave states the authority to set their own abortion policies. As we know now, this has had a disastrous impact on all birthing people in states where abortions have become essentially banned—sometimes even those who experience miscarriages can now find themselves convicted of supposedly violating the laws, and some have been forced to carry dead fetuses in their bodies that should be removed. 

In keeping with the rollback theme, the court on June 29 struck down affirmative action programs at the University of North Carolina and Harvard University. The court ruled that both programs violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. The Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment ensures that all Americans receive equal protection under the Constitution. As the New York Times reportedIt has been cited in a wide variety of court cases, including Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark ruling in 1954 that declared racial segregation in schooling unconstitutional; and, more recently, the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling in 2015 that cemented same-sex marriage as a right.”

In other words, the same clause that gave very marginalized people (starting with Black folks) certain protections and rights is being rolled back because some white folks and some Asian folks felt that these protections were unfair to them. As my dearly departed Granny used to say, “Ain’t that a bitch.” 

(Before we get too far into blaming Asian-American people and talking about lack of solidarity between non-white people, though, you might want to check out the Twitter thread by @_ShamGod here. This is more about the white supremacy agenda and is connected to racial divisions engineered by various white people in the background.)

The court’s ruling now, like with Roe v Wade, is going to have many consequences, ranging from less diverse campuses, less racial diversity moving forward in many professions, and overall—when paired with the increase in rolling back diversity, equity and inclusion efforts—the college landscape is about to shift. Of course, preferred treatment is still available in the form of legacy admissions (typically benefiting white people of means). But let’s not talk about that. Let’s also not talk about the fact that the largest overall beneficiaries of affirmative action as a whole have been white women. It will be interesting to see where the court’s decision ultimately leaves them.

As I write this, there is much gnashing of teeth and justifiable anger and questions. Including “How could this happen?” Yet, after a decade of “doing” anti-racism work as a career rather than as an interest, I am not surprised. Saddened but definitely not surprised.

As a whole, our inability until recently to even begin to talk openly about our country’s history on race is one of the ways that we got to this moment. 

In the Harvard case, the plaintiff is a young Asian-American man, Jon Wang, who felt that, despite his perfect math SAT scores and top grades, affirmative action prevented him from getting into his top schools of choice. Furthermore, Wang felt the system was rigged in favor of Black Americans. 

Wang is the child of Chinese immigrants and his feelings underscore how dangerous it is when we don’t talk honestly about racial history and how it connects to the present day. Or how Black Americans paved the way for many other communities of color in this country and how many benefit from anti-Black bias.

It is easy to believe that Black Americans remain “inferior” when we don’t talk openly about the structural barriers that still exist within Black American communities. Or the role of bias and why there was a need for the Equal Protection Clause in the first place. I would posit that someone failed the young Mr. Wang in his early education. Now, here we all are. 

There is a generation of young people and holdovers from older generations who are ignorant of how racism started, how embedded it is, how much it has held back Black and Indigenous people most of all, and how even with affirmative action the playing field still never got remotely level—and now even that meager protection is gone.

Such people believe that simply saying race doesn’t matter will make it a statement of truth and will make it end. It doesn’t work that way, anymore than me telling myself I am wealthy and watching my bank account suddenly balloon. Nope.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson said it far more eloquently than I, though: “With let-them-eat-cake obliviousness, today, the majority pulls the ripcord and announces ‘colorblindness for all’ by legal fiat. But deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life. … It is no small irony that the judgment the majority hands down today will forestall the end of race-based disparities in this country, making the colorblind world the majority wistfully touts much more difficult to accomplish.”

Race is indeed relevant, it impacts every area of life from birth to death; however, a majority of the Supreme Court would have us believe that is not the case. Sadly, too many white people and some people of color also believe that lie. Like the Roe reversal, this is a sad moment, but it is also a moment for those in the trenches of racial justice to examine their commitment and recommit to the work.

Reproductive rights activists and organizers were preparing for the fall of Roe, but I fear that on the racial justice side, too many of us were caught off guard, refusing to realize that awareness and social media racial justice work is only part of the work. Moving forward, our work must deepen and become far more relational. We have to ensure that people are more than just aware—that they understand the why of our work and what needs to be done. Why things cannot just be equal because we say it. Why fixing the problem requires working in community and being in relationship with others, particularly those whose views are not necessarily aligned with ours. 

This moment is greater than the Trump-installed justices and the racism of the right wing. In many ways, this moment is a collective failure of racial justice and our ability to read the landscape and adjust our assumptions. Too many of us assume that others want to do the right thing and, as a result, our efforts are tepid.

Too many assume that younger generations are inherently less racist, without actually doing the organizing and relationship-building to make sure that is a truth rather than a speculation. (Meanwhile the racists skillfully recruit those young people to their side by feeding them lies.) The fact that so many people feel the world is unfairly biased toward Black people despite white people holding a vastly disproportionate amount of power and wealth should give us all pause.  In the moment, we can weep for this continued rollback of protections that we assumed were permanent so that we could continue to build on them for a truly fair society. But we can’t weep for long; we must continue the work or things will only get worse. So much worse.

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Image by Ian Hutchinson via Unsplash