In fact, a negative ruling from the Supreme Court could have wiped out much of the progress of the recent past. Consider, for example, the way many people rise to the ranks of leadership. Writing for the court in Grutter, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor explained, “[i]n order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity.” This is particularly true at state universities, which educate the lion’s share of those who go on to become leaders in many states. Research by LDF staff shows that in states such as Michigan, Alabama, Florida and Maryland, close to 70 percent or more of state legislators obtained undergraduate or advanced degrees from their respective state’s colleges and universities.
Even with the race-conscious affirmative action policies that are currently available, access and opportunity for African-American students seeking to attend these schools is still far from ideal. This is especially true in an era when the “new economy” has made college access and affordability even more difficult. So just imagine what could happen if affirmative action — one of the best tools available to promote diversity and opportunity — were lost. The impact could extend beyond individuals and affect entire communities and the very legitimacy of our institutions.
How could African Americans be expected to ascend to the ranks of leadership without first having had opportunity? How could legislators and policymakers be expected to govern together without first having had a chance to learn from one another? And how could residents of every race and ethnicity be expected to respect their elected institutions if they do not reflect their own lived experience and voice?
Despite notable progress, the threat of retrenchment, in the form of a retreat from the promise of diversity and opportunity, is still real. Our work is not yet complete. Stark racial disparities in education continue to limit opportunity for African-American students, from elementary school through college. So schools like the University of Texas should be urged to do more, not less, to develop creative policies that open and maintain access to higher education for all of our nation’s students. They should consider all barriers to higher education across the spectrum, including recruitment, admission, retention and graduation.
And just as our work as a nation remains undone, so, too, does our work remain undone in the Fisher case. LDF has represented the Black Student Alliance at the University of Texas at Austin since the early stages of the case. Now, as the case goes back to the lower court, LDF will continue to lift up the voice of these students who know better than most that it takes continued vigilance to ensure that the gains of the past translate into the promise of the future.
Damon T. Hewitt is the director of the Education Practice Group for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
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