Not that long ago, higher education advocates regularly complained about the lack of national attention on colleges and universities. A huge win involved a sentence or two in the president’s State of the Union or a governor’s State of the State.
Perhaps we should’ve been more careful about what we wished for. Today, higher education is a hot topic and almost always for negative reasons. Affordability. Academic freedom. Accreditors. And – of course – admissions. Many of us want to put our heads in the sand and let the storm blow over.
This would be a missed opportunity. Higher education is receiving significant attention because all sides recognize that our country’s future depends on how we educate the public. We are in a fraught moment, with starkly different views on what happened in the past and where we stand in the present.
Which brings me to the Supreme Court’s long-awaited decision limiting the use of race as a factor in college admissions.
We did not get 237 pages of majority opinion, dissents, and concurrences solely to explain how highly selective universities should do admissions. Instead, those pages exemplify a core debate about our country today: What does race mean in America? How did we get here — and where are we going?
All justices accept the importance of equality in America and believe that the Constitution requires us to pay special attention to race. But they sharply diverge on what parts of history are relevant and what remedies are needed to create a healthy democracy with opportunity for all.
The six justices in the majority acknowledge America’s troubled history with inequality and discrimination but believe that most of the hard work addressing this checkered past has already been done. They see colorblindness as the best way forward.
The dissents provide a different view. Justice Sonia Sotomayor concludes that the majority presents an “illusion that racial inequality was a problem of a different generation.” Despite legal mandates to end discrimination, stark racial differences persist in education, work, wealth, and healthcare access. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson goes even deeper, showing that anti-discrimination efforts were always deeply contested. In fact, she notes, federal and state governments’ “selective intervention further exacerbated the disparities” faced by Black Americans in employment, property ownership, and educational opportunity.
To the dissenters, our current reality only comes into focus in light of this history. The improvements we have seen in recent years “have only been made possible,” Jackson writes, “because institutions like UNC have been willing to grapple forthrightly with the burdens of history.”
Now is not the time for higher education to walk back this progress. Those who are disappointed with the Court’s decision have a real opportunity to create a positive vision for the work ahead. As America anticipates its 250th anniversary, it stands at a crossroads. In an increasingly polarized country, how can education systems help build healthy communities despite our differences?
Revisiting integration is one place to start. I’m excited to see fresh new ideas from groups like Brown’s Promise, a new effort to focus the country again on integration of schools and all the benefits that flow from it.
It is a huge problem that most Americans live, work, and play in racially homogenous places. After all, your neighborhood, your school, your college, and your workplace define how you understand and walk through the world. About a third of all K-12 students – and nearly half of white students, a third of Hispanic students, and a quarter of Black students – attend a racially homogenous school with at least 75 percent of students from a single race or ethnicity. This trend has sharply increased in recent years. This not only limits opportunity for disadvantaged groups but also deprives everyone of the opportunity to see different perspectives and practice how to operate in a pluralist society. For higher education, this also means that many, even most, of their students will come to college with very little experience operating in diverse settings.
I hope that creative efforts can also help the education community connect more firmly with democracy building, civil rights, and community vitalization. Too often, these efforts exist separate from each other, limiting the exchange of ideas and the ability to create strong coalitions. We need these efforts more than ever, as we face the polycrisis of rising authoritarianism, the mainstreaming of extremist views, increasing effects of climate change, pandemics, the war in Ukraine, inflation, tension with China, and the rapid ascent of artificial intelligence.
The truth is that race-conscious admissions justified by a diversity interest were never a strong enough foundation for building the kind of multi-racial democracy that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed of. We should be spending more time doing the hard, necessary work of creating the country not yet seen. By letting go of outdated structures, listening to each other, and learning to live in the tension and beauty of difference, perhaps we can work together to create it.
This article was initially published in Diverse Issues in Higher Education.