In 1882, Congress passed the “Chinese Exclusion Act”, which barred Chinese workers from coming to the United States and blocked Chinese nationals from becoming US citizens. On February 19, 1942, in response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which allowed the federal government to imprison over 100,000 people of Japanese descent into internment camps and seize all of their property. In 1943, Congress passed “The Magnus Act” which restricted Chinese immigration to a mere 105 people per year. In hindsight, it is fair to say that every one of these race-based policies was absolutely wrong. It is illegal to use race as the criteria to include or exclude a person, or deny them their inherent rights and the property they earned.
In that spirit, on Thursday, in a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that colleges and universities can no longer take race into consideration as a specific basis for granting admission to their institution, effectively ending affirmative action in college admissions. Proponents of affirmative action will argue that the legacy of institutional racial discrimination in America is still felt today by the groups who were discriminated against. Slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, redlining, have created an extreme disadvantage for black people to the point that the playing field cannot be level and it is impossible for black people to compete fairly in the 21st century. It does not matter that slavery was abolished 160 years ago, the other forms of institutional discrimination were outlawed 60 years ago with the 1963 Civil Rights Act, and that several generations of black people have not been personally harmed by those previous forms of racial discrimination.
In his concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote, “Given the history of discrimination against Asian Americans, especially their history with segregated schools, it seems particularly incongruous to suggest that a past history of segregationist policies toward blacks should be remedied at the expense of Asian American college applicants.” Essentially, race-based admission policies in colleges and universities were trying to repair the damages of the history of racial discrimination against blacks by racially discriminating against Asians who were forced to overcome their own history of racial discrimination in this country.
When we look at professions such as professional sports where there is a disproportionate number of blacks who excel than other races, the question, therefore, arises, why hasn’t the legacy of racism and racial discrimination negatively affected black people from excelling in those fields like they claim it prevents them from competing in other professions and in education? Racial discrimination in sports was real in the United States as it was in any other aspect of society. For much of the 20th century, professional sports leagues prevented black players from participating. Black players were not allowed to play in Major League Baseball until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. The NFL was not integrated until Kenny Washington signed with the Los Angeles Rams in 1946, and it wasn’t until 1950 that the NBA first allowed black players Chuck Cooper, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton and Earl Lloyd to compete. And even after professional sports were integrated, many colleges continued the practice of racial discrimination, denying many black players the opportunity to play college sports which would have helped them become professionals.
So why doesn’t the legacy of racial discrimination negatively affect the success of black people in sports as proponents of affirmative action in college admissions claim it does in education? Shouldn’t they be lagging behind in sports like they are in academia? They will claim that the legacy of discrimination negatively affects people in academia where it doesn’t in sports. But that is not the experience that Asian-Americans have. Even though the history of discrimination against Asian-Americans in the United States is real and tragic, they are succeeding in academia at highest rate just as black people succeed in professional sports. Whether a student’s great grandparents were discriminated against or not does not determine whether he is capable of learning the Pythagorean theorem or Newton’s Laws of Motion, just as it does not affect whether he capable of making a 3-point shot or catching a touchdown pass.
Some people will argue that this landmark Supreme Court decision will hold black and Hispanic people back from succeeding in academia, but there is a very good chance that this decision which injects meritocracy into academics will eventually propel those groups forward. Professional sports are the perfect example. It is a meritocracy. No one is given anything. Everything is earned on the field of play. Affirmative action would turn professional sports into a joke. The best players play. And when asked to compete on a level playing field in sports, black players proved that they could excel despite the history of discrimination they faced. Likewise, for decades, academia was a pure meritocracy for Asian Americans. They were forced to earn everything they achieved, and they did, and then some.
When forced to earn in a meritocratic system, people will rise to the expectations and standards. And now that racial preferences are being removed from college admissions, the groups that have been held back by affirmative action may start achieving beyond what has ever been expected of them. Affirmative action will always be, as George W. Bush once said, is “the soft bigotry of low expectations”. People tend to rise or fall to the expectations that are placed on them. Affirmative action is an institutionalized statement of low expectations, and black people have fallen to those low expectations for decades because of it. The 14th Amendment of our Constitution pushes us toward this meritocratic system which in the end lifts us all to our highest ability because it helps place the same high expectations on everyone. “Equal protection under the law” means that no one will be given favor or disfavor based on immutable characteristic such as race. Under law, we are forced to earn or merit everything that we get regardless of what group we are born into.
In the 2015 movie, The Bridge of Spies, Attorney James Donovan, played by Tom Hanks, explains the importance of the United States Constitution, not only ensuring equal protection under the law, but in unifying the country, when he says, “I’m Irish, you’re German, but what makes us both Americans? Just one thing, one one one. The rulebook. We call it the Constitution. We agree to the rules, and that’s what makes us Americans, it’s all that makes us Americans.” On Thursday, six members of the Supreme Court followed the rulebook. The rulebook, the Constitution is color blind, it does not see race, and that is the best and only way forward out of the racial divide that is tearing our country apart. In the end, America is and should always be a meritocracy. That was what distinguished the American experiment from the European countries from which it arose. People were allowed to transcend the station of their birth and make themselves whatever they want, as long as they earned it honestly.
Judd Garrett is a graduate from Princeton University, and a former NFL player, coach, and executive. He has been a contributor to the website Real Clear Politics. He has recently published his first novel, No Wind.