I’m overjoyed about the DOMA ruling earlier this week. But coming on the tails of the gutting of the Voting Rights Amendment and the meh ruling on affirmative action, it tasted less sweet. And it reflected a very simplistic American idea of “fairness.” That’s what I’m writing about in the Guardian this week:
Unfortunately, the American conception of equality seems to operate on a sixth-grade level. We understand that disparate treatment is wrong, but we have a harder time reckoning with more insidious forms of bigotry. We believe we’re a meritocracy and that as long as there aren’t laws directly marginalizing certain groups of people, then our nation is a fair one where all of us have equal opportunities. Much of the public and many of our courts are sympathetic to relatively simplistic arguments based on legal equality: laws that treat some people differently than others are bad. Of course, many laws that treat some people differently than others are bad, but battling discrimination is more complicated than that.
As if determined to prove correct the concerns of anti-racists, within 24 hours of the court gutting the VRA, six out of nine VRA states proposed new voter identification laws which will disproportionately impact non-white voters. And although the claim that we’re so post-racism that we no longer need the VRA sounds nice, it’s not reality. Yes, we have a biracial president. Our nation has also elected a whopping three African-American senators in 136 years.
The problems aren’t just with voting, of course. The legacy of slavery and the reality of ongoing discrimination can’t be wiped away with legal changes alone or undone in a generation or two. Yet efforts to counter those ills are increasingly seen as discriminatory by white people frustrated with their slowly ceding racial dominance. Affirmative action, another issue decided by the supreme court this week, is case in point. Although universities take all kinds of factors into account when determining admissions, the fact that some of them offer a tiny benefit to traditionally marginalized groups outrages white students like Abigail Fisher, the plaintiff in the latest affirmative action case, who feel entitled to admission at the school of their choice and will sue when they don’t get what they want. You don’t hear a lot of complaining about the fact that universities look at factors such as legacy status, participation in many pricey extracurricular activities or graduation from top-notch high schools – all of which disproportionately benefit white and upper-class applicants.
By recognizing that black and Latino students often lack access to the institutions that help whites in the admissions process and attempting to counteract that reality, universities are allegedly treating applicants differently based on the color of their skin. For those with a simple view of equality, that’s wrong. Although the supreme court decision didn’t do away with affirmative action, in the name of fairness it placed more impediments in the way of universities attempting to make their admissions processes more fair. It’s a victory for colorblind rules. But since we don’t live in a colorblind world, it’s a loss for racial justice.
There’s much to celebrate this week, and the court’s marriage ruling is undoubtedly one for the history books. But until we reckon with the reality of bigotry and discrimination – that it’s not just about getting rid of laws that treat people differently – we’ll remain stuck in a vastly unequal reality, wondering childishly why the world isn’t fair.
You can read the whole thing here.
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