Last week, the Supreme Court handed down its latest decision on the topic of affirmative action in college admissions, ruling 6-2 that voters can ban state colleges and universities from using race as a factor in admitting students.
André Carrington, PhD, was paying close attention. An assistant professor of African-American literature in Drexel’s Department of English and Philosophy, Carrington has studied critical race theory, a school of thought that combines history, philosophy, law and other fields to examine how race affects social institutions. Much of his research focuses on the role of race in American culture, a subject where literature and the law are intertwined, he said.
Naturally, Carrington took an interest in the court’s opinion, as well as the strongly worded dissent written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor. On the day of the ruling, he took to Twitter and shared his thoughts on Sotomayor’s dissent — all 58 pages of it.
Later, Carrington talked with DrexelNow about the ruling, the dissent and how they tie in to race and culture in America.
In this case, why did you find the dissent from Sotomayor so interesting, as opposed to the opinions issued on the side of the court’s decision?
Justice Sotomayor’s dissent adds something to our understanding of what is at stake in this case that the opinion itself doesn't touch on. Namely, she presents a forceful and evidence-based argument that race matters when it comes to the way we make public policy. This is significant, because the majority on the Court has insisted on a “color-blind” approach to evaluating policy in recent years. Instead, the dissent demonstrates an understanding of race that is historically grounded and systemically aware.
Justice Sotomayor suggests that the Court should have looked differently at Michigan’s change to its state constitution, because it was a reconfiguration of the political process triggered specifically by a question of race. She argues that, after they’d failed to achieve their goals within the existing decision-making process, opponents of race-sensitive admissions changed the rules in a way that makes it more difficult for their counterparts — for racial minorities in particular — to respond. She points to a long record of political maneuvers like this that have proven deleterious to racial justice, including some that are dealt with in previous Supreme Court cases regarding segregation and voting rights.
What can we learn about the subject of race-sensitive college admissions from this case?
The decision might put race-sensitive admissions in jeopardy across the country, because now states can ban these policies in a way that makes it especially difficult to put them back in place. The Court is saying that regardless of how valuable these policies are, opponents of race-sensitive measures are allowed to change the process their states use to decide whether or not to have them until they find a mechanism that yields the results they want. According to evidence about race-conscious admissions, when schools aren't allowed to use these measures, they end up enrolling fewer black and non-white Latino or Latina students. That gives opponents of affirmative action an outsize role in determining every student's educational opportunities.
As someone whose research focuses in part on race and politics — and someone who instructs college students — why is the issue of race-sensitive admissions important to you?
I think these policies are important because they work. They make it more likely that schools will include and therefore be shaped by people of color, and that’s vital to making educational institutions operate in ways that promote racial equality.
Sotomayor wrote that the other justices misunderstood the “reality of race in America.” What do you think are common misconceptions about the role of race in this country today?
Many Americans don't think critically about race. Even though it's not really ethical to do so, we rely on stereotypes, anecdotes and clichés instead of pursuing effective strategies to deal with the ongoing effects of racism.
I agree with Justice Sotomayor's assessment that it's facile to propose a color-blind approach to addressing racial issues when there is a great deal of evidence we can use to formulate legitimate interpretations of the role of race in our society. The tendency to trivialize racism contributes to the misconception that there isn't useful knowledge to rely on about race — but there is! We just have to look for it and take it seriously when we find it.