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States rights, civil rights and the concept of equality

April 23, 2014

On Tuesday, April 22, 2014 The Supreme Court of the United States issued a decision in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, that upheld the right of a state to place an issue regarding affirmative action on the ballot, and then enact it based on the will of a majority of the voters.

Because it was concerned with disregarding race, gender, etc. as a criteria for college admission, this was bound to draw impassioned rhetoric from both sides, and indeed one of the two dissenting justices, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, read a 58-page dissenting opinion. For those that are interested, the full text of the opinion can be found at

What interests me is that in the view of many, we are no further ahead in achieving racial equality now than we were in 1964.

That puts the efforts of many civil rights supporters into the category of wasted effort. If things are no better now than they were in 1964, what went wrong? If the only way to get into the win column is to oppress someone else, what was all the fuss about?  That concept seems so 19th century.

Back in the late 1800’s bare-knuckle prize fighting was a popular sport. It simply consisted of two guys getting into the ring toe-to-toe and beating each other until one was too injured to continue, at which time the surviving fighter was declared the winner. The only other way for the fight to end was for one fighter to throw in the towel, i.e. signify that he didn’t want to fight anymore.

Winning because your opponent gave up wasn’t nearly as prestigious for the winning fighter as leaving the opponent senseless on the canvas. Men died or were permanently maimed in the ring because they considered that preferable to the perceived dishonor of living to fight another day.

It seems as though that mentality is driving the affirmative action agenda today. It is still about annihilating your opponent, not the win.

One point made in the dissenting opinion was that without affirmative action, Justice Sotomayor would not have had the opportunity to attend Princeton or Yale or even to become an attorney, and at the time she was in school that was true. But to say that she is now a justice of the Supreme Court only because of affirmative action is to belittle her considerable talent, work ethic and intelligence. She didn’t graduate summa cum laude from Princeton because of affirmative action. Whatever you think of her politics, she got where she is by means of her efforts to expand her own qualifications. To assume otherwise is to belittle her, not her race.

Back in 1964, the battle cry was equal opportunity for all. Somewhere along the line it seems to have become about the suppression of the rights of others as payback for the inequalities of the past. In that effort, precious resources have been squandered. Discussions about hope, pride, a solid work ethic, and exercising personal responsibility are considered too controversial, too racist if you will, to consider having today.

Entering college based on your own merits is not, or at least should not, be a foreign concept. Michigan’s law clearly states that neither discrimination against or preference for race or other subjective variables will be allowable, and violations of that law should be equally viewed as undesirable.

Opponents of the April 22 decision state that minority enrollment has declined in other states with similar laws. If that is due to covert discrimination it is wrong. If it is due to insufficient grades, lack of community involvement or any other objectively measurable factor, then affirmative action isn’t the answer.

Having equal opportunity does not guarantee equal success unless there is equal effort. Voting for the person that will give you the most free stuff doesn’t improve your chances to succeed. Voting for a politician who listens to your reasonable requests, cleans up your neighborhood, prosecutes crime equally regardless of what race commits it and makes it possible for you to access and use the tools for success without fear is not a racial issue, and it isn’t throwing in the towel.

There are a lot of reasons why minority and poor kids are still disadvantaged. Schools are unsafe, teachers are ineffective, parents disinterested or absent, gangs run rampant through neighborhoods, drugs are the career of choice for many, and education is something that you only do because some truant officer drags you to the school until the day comes that you can legally drop out. The turf wars among groups divided along ethnic and racial lines are every bit as oppressive and violent as anything that took place prior to 1864 or 1964. Those are neighborhood issues that should be addressed without prejudice for or against any group.

If racial preference is the only path forward, whether that preference is towards whites, blacks, Asians, Latinos, Native Americans, or any other group, then the whole idea behind civil rights and equal opportunity is a sham.

Early civil rights activists had to be pretty vocal and demanding to be heard. The problem is, they succeeded and don’t seem to know it. Fighting the same old fight with the same old tactics has become an end in and of itself, a habit instead of a strategy. It might be time to enjoy the win, and move on to a better arena, one where winning isn’t about annihilation. 

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