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The ‘Colorblindness’ Trap: How a Civil Rights Ideal Got Hijacked

But who or what, then, did bear the responsibility?

Bakke was raised in Coral Gables, a wealthy, white suburb of Miami whose segregationist founder proposed a plan to remove all Black people from Miami while serving on the Dade County Planning Board, and where the white elementary school did not desegregate until after it was ordered by a federal court to do so in 1970, the same year U.C. Davis began its affirmative-action program. The court did not contemplate how this racially exclusive access to top neighborhoods and top schools probably helped Bakke to achieve the test scores that most Black students, largely relegated because of their racial designation to resource-deprived segregated neighborhoods and educational facilities, did not. It did not mean Bakke didn’t work hard, but it did mean that he had systemic advantages over equally hard-working and talented Black people.

For centuries, men like Powell and Bakke had benefited from a near-100 percent quota system, one that reserved nearly all the seats at this nation’s best-funded public and private schools and most-exclusive public and private colleges, all the homes in the best neighborhoods and all the top, well-paying jobs in private companies and public agencies for white Americans. Men like Bakke did not acknowledge the systemic advantages they had accrued because of their racial category, nor all the ways their race had unfairly benefited them. More critical, neither did the Supreme Court. As members of the majority atop the caste system, racial advantage transmitted invisibly to them. They took notice of their race only when confronted with a new system that sought to redistribute some of that advantage to people who had never had it.

Thus, the first time the court took up the issue of affirmative action, it took away the policy’s power. The court determined that affirmative action could not be used to redress the legacy of racial discrimination that Black Americans experienced, or the current systemic inequality that they were still experiencing. Instead, it allowed that some consideration of a student’s racial background could stand for one reason only: to achieve desired “diversity” of the student body. Powell referred to Harvard’s affirmative-action program, which he said had expanded to include students from other disadvantaged backgrounds, such as those from low-income families. He quoted an example from the plan, which said: “The race of an applicant may tip the balance in his favor, just as geographic origin or a life spent on a farm may tip the balance in other candidates’ cases. A farm boy from Idaho can bring something to Harvard College that a Bostonian cannot offer. Similarly, a Black student can usually bring something that a white person cannot offer.”

But, of course, a (white) farm boy from Idaho did not descend from people who were enslaved, because they were farmers from Idaho. There were not two centuries of case law arguing over the inherent humanity and rights of farm boys from Idaho. There was no sector of the law, no constitutional provision, that enshrined farm boys from Idaho as property who could be bought and sold. Farm boys from Idaho had no need to engage in a decades-long movement to gain basic rights of citizenship, including the fundamental right to vote. Farm boys from Idaho had not, until just a decade earlier, been denied housing, jobs, the ability to sit on juries and access to the ballot. Farm boys from Idaho had not been forced to sue for the right to attend public schools and universities.

In Bakke, the court was legally — and ideologically — severing the link between race and condition. Race became nothing more than ancestry and a collection of superficial physical traits. The 14th Amendment was no longer about alleviating the extraordinary repercussions of slavery but about treating everyone the same regardless of their “skin color,” history or present condition. With a few strokes of his pen, Powell wiped this context away, and just like that, the experience of 350 years of slavery and Jim Crow was relegated to one thing: another box to check.

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