There’s no such thing as ‘race neutral’

Protesters for and against affirmative active demonstrate on Capitol Hill on June 29, 2023 in Washington, DC. In a 6-3 vote, Supreme Court Justices ruled that race-conscious admissions programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina are unconstitutional, setting precedent for affirmative action in other universities and colleges. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.  

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

J. Christ

White supremacy is a god.

For some, the concept of racial supremacy is the only physical evidence of a higher power they need. For others, it is a historical myth. It is a savior and a false prophet. It is real and it is a lie, unseen, yet everywhere at once. And because this nation is built on the foundation of this belief system, America is steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of white supremacy. 

Before we begin, let’s get this out of the way. There isn’t a single millimeter of the American education system that does not disadvantage Black students. Nearly 70% of Black children attend schools that are majority Black. Seventy-two percent of Black children attend high-poverty schools while the reverse is true for white kids. Those majority-Black schools receive less funding and have fewer resources than even the poorest white schools. Black children receive harsher discipline penalties than white children who commit the same offenses. Teachers give grade Black students lower grades than white students. This is the American education system that every Black child in America must navigate. These are facts.

I haven’t even started talking about race yet.

On Thursday, the highest judicial body of an imaginary non-racist country said this well-researched, peer-reviewed country with educational, economic and racial disparities that white people explicitly worked to build doesn’t actually exist. It’s not real. The actual America is a “race-neutral” nation. 

Although many news outlets, including this one, have reported that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down policies alternately called “affirmative action” and “race-conscious admissions,” that’s not what happened. Colleges are still allowed to use race as a factor in admitting students. Universities are not barred from using affirmative action for legacies, donors, the children of employees and athletes. In fact, here is a more accurate way to describe what just happened.

In a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated race as a factor for everyone except white people.  

The big white elephant in the room

[I]t is not even theoretically possible to help a certain racial group without causing harm to members of other racial groups. It should be obvious that every racial classification helps, in a narrow sense, some races and hurts others

Clarence Thomas

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Clarence Thomas is right. 

In his concurring opinion, which he says was written “to offer an originalist defense of the colorblind Constitution” (I know, I know. I wanna see that Constitution, too), Thomas sided with his fellow conservatives. He argued that racial considerations violate the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, which says “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall…deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” While Thomas was specifically referring to race-based admissions policies, his historical fan fiction could also be used as the thesis statement for why a race-neutral society is impossible. 

When the foundational document of this nation made white people worth 40% more than Black people, it was not just acquiescing to the demands of southern slaveholders; the Constitution’s three-fifths clause helped a certain racial group and caused harm to another. Only one race was harmed when the judicial body upon which Thomas sits decided that Black people “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Separate but equal caused the same harm and helped the same race. Nearly every single law, policy, rule and political action pertaining to race during the first century of this country’s existence helped “a certain racial group.”

The 13th Amendment that ended slavery was technically race neutral; the Freedmen’s Bureau was a race-based corrective measure for the formerly enslaved that addressed the past. The 14th Amendment offered equal protection under the law. Sending Union troops to occupy the post-Civil War South was an affirmative action to specifically protect the newly emancipated Black citizens from racial terrorists. Brown v. Board of Education simply decided that segregation was unconstitutional. Integration, busing and military escorts for Black students were just a few of the actions that affirmed the court’s decision.

Yet, a court that supposedly relies on precedent to make their judicial decisions didn’t just declare that everything white people did to help their race doesn’t matter, they essentially banned policies aimed at fixing the harm that white people did. And to do so, they manufactured a make-believe standard of “race neutral” that could never exist. Even if the possibility of a colorblind society was even achievable, how could not considering race undo all the disparities that exist when America considered nothing but race?

Black people did not invent race or racial classifications. We didn’t create the color line or dream up Jim Crow. Black people didn’t invent race-based involuntary servitude or racial integrity laws. We didn’t inject race into reading, writing, history, mathematicsgeography, biology, psychology, medicine, art and even athletics. We didn’t create the one-drop rule or grandfather clauses or poll taxes or gerrymandering or separate but equal or the fugitive slave clause or redlining or Black codes or white leagues or white neighborhoods or whitecapping or night riding or sundown towns or Sunday lynching services or any of the myriad things white people have concocted to help themselves to the bounty they have amassed through the sheer force of their whiteness. 

White people did that.

The court has expressly forbidden colleges and universities from remembering the time when laws and statutes were concocted in a way that, as Thomas correctly claimed, “helps, in a narrow sense, some races and hurts others.” Admissions departments must ignore the fact that, at the exact moment that the Supreme Court hit “send” on their retrograde manifesto, Black children were five times more likely to attend racially segregated schools. Colleges can consider SAT scores but not the fact that standardized tests were created as a white power maintenance tool. They must also un-remember the fact that SAT scores are more of a reflection of racial inequality than academic achievement. According to six unelected arbiters of justice, we are now required to pretend that the historical, social, economic and political factors that create the quantifiable racial inequalities awaiting every Black child on the first day of kindergarten do not exist. 

“Colorblindness” is a form of amnesia. The only possible way anyone can be “race neutral” is by forgetting what happened in the past. But, as this country is showing its nonwhite citizens, forgetting is an act of patriotism. History is anti-white. Even remembering the truth is an affirmative action.

But don’t worry; colleges can still use race as a factor for admission.

Affirmative action for white people

White students are the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action. 

Although most people think of the collection of policies as something that benefits “minorities,” race is just one of many factors used to admit students into institutions of higher education. The loopholes for white people are much larger and wider. At every turn, the most elite colleges and universities take affirmative action to make sure white students are at the front of the line. 

In 2019, I reported on a working paper by economists at Duke University, the University of Oklahoma and the University of Georgia. After examining data from Harvard University, Peter Arcidiacono, Tyler Ransom and Josh Kinsler,  published “Legacy and Athlete Preferences at Harvard” in the National Bureau of Economic Research. The study found that athletes, legacies (people whose family members attended the institution), children of employees and students of “special importance to the deans of admission”  — typically “applicants whose parents have donated to Harvard, and applicants whose relatives have donated to Harvard” make up two out of every five white students who were admitted to the Ivy League university. Forty-three percent of white people gained entry through this white privilege escape clause, compared to 16 percent of Black students.

Even controlling for education experience and geographical pay differences, Black workers are paid 15% less than white employees. When far-white activist Edward Blum filed Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and its companion case, Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina, white households had a median wealth of $188,200 versus $24,100 for Black households. Exceptions for people who make large donations are, by definition, a race-based admission policy for whites. Between 2014 and 2019, 69.3% of the legacy admissions to Harvard were white. And, while most people think of athletic scholarships for football and basketball going to Black students, athletic scholarships are disproportionately reserved for non-revenue (pronounced “why-yet”) sports and students who shoot golf, play rowing and do sword fighting. This year alone, 75% of the athletes recruited for Harvard’s 2023 freshman class are white. 

I actually asked the researchers how these exceptions compared to race-based admissions policies. Arcidiacono, one of the authors of the Harvard study, replied that the white privilege loopholes “are much higher than admissions rates for African Americans.” In fact, according to the peer-reviewed data, if Harvard eliminated preferences for legacies, the result would increase the number of African-American, Asian-American and Hispanic students but the white acceptant rate would decrease.

Welp, so much for that “merit myth.”

To be fair, there is another aspect of this reality that is rarely mentioned. Colleges don’t even pretend that their admissions policies are based on who is the “best student.” Instead, diversity efforts are aimed at creating the best learning environments. The entire point of a liberal arts education is to provide access to people, cultures and ideas that students don’t have access to on their own. 

Who asked for a colorblind country?

“[S]uch remedies must be meant to further a colorblind government, not perpetuate racial consciousness.”

— Clarence Thomas

Only white people (and Clarence Thomas) view colorblindness as a positive attribute. The only logical reason someone would proclaim that they “don’t see color” is that they cannot conceive that someone could be “race conscious” without using race as a tool of oppression. Apparently, the only way they could possibly view someone of another race as their equal is by stripping everyone of their culture, history and lineage. Not only is it possible to “see race” and not be racist, but a truly non-racist America would right the wrongs of the past by addressing the specific groups it has harmed. 

Whether it’s the conservative bootstrap approach or Bernie Sanders’ progressive “rising tide” proposals, “race-neutral” policies are an inefficient way to correct a problem that affects a particular group. If you knew there was one person who was dying of thirst in a group of 100 well-hydrated people, it would be insanely idiotic to bring a single glass of water and let everyone take a sip. It would even be more insane to allow the well-hydrated people to create the water distribution policy. 

Unless, of course, you don’t see thirst.  

But for a second, let’s imagine we could create this theoretical race-neutral utopian America into existence. As Thomas noted, it’s impossible to help one race without harming another. So we’d have to start by undoing the economic and social advantages created by America’s race-based system of slavery. Of course, in this fairytale universe, race doesn’t exist. So instead of taking the wealth produced by slavery and giving it to the descendants of enslaved Africans, we’d have to redistribute all of the wealth. Because colonization, headrights, Native American removal and Manifest Destiny were all race-based policies, our theoretical race-unconscious country couldn’t take back the land that was stolen from the natives and confiscate the property of slaveowners. We’d have to have a nationwide land lottery. The entire education system was created to produce better outcomes for whites, so we’d need new funding formulas, education laws and admissions policies. But of course, those colleges and schools benefitted from segregation and the theft of Black taxpayers who were excluded from them for, in many cases, centuries. We’d need all of that back to truly be race neutral. We’d also have to let everyone out of prison since the criminal justice system was really race neutral. And while all of this chaos is taking place, we wouldn’t have elected officials, police, judges or any of the historically pro-white institutions that profited from discrimination against “certain races.” Hopefully, we’d have this all figured out by the time you get your wealth distribution checks because, of course, there would be no banks.

As unsettling as all this sounds, it’s much less disturbing than the song produced by the self-righteous whines of the people who feel aggrieved after pilfering and plundering the wealth, labor and humanity of an entire non-white nation for 400 years. 

Since Black people don’t have a time machine, we simply want America to fix the things it broke. We want to live in a country that has a court that truly believes in liberty and justice for all and could actually try to form a “more perfect union.” To do this, someone would actually have to take affirmative action. 

Unfortunately, the omnipotent American God actually gave his people a white supremacist time machine.

It’s called the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Michael Harriot is a writer, cultural critic and championship-level Spades player. His book, Black AF History: The Unwhitewashed Story of America, will be released in September.

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