I wish everyone a peaceful and healthy New Year.

And now, a few thoughts about an item on the Supreme Court’s docket.

You would expect an American person of color to be in favor of affirmative action, right? While I’m living proof of that expectation, I know the correlation between one’s racial identity and supporting affirmative action is not a sure bet. Why? Because there are people whose experiences with affirmative action have not always been entirely positive.

When the Supreme Court hears the arguments in Students for Fair Admission v. Harvard College and Students for Fair Admission v. UNC, which side will Justice Clarence Thomas favor? Based upon his reasoning when he joined his associates in overturning Roe v. Wade, I would guess he won’t fulfill the race-based expectation which would favor Harvard College’s and UNC’s affirmative action policies. That’s just a guess, mind you.

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I’m not judging the Justice. I know there are more than two sides in any argument, a gray area that makes it impossible to see things as simply white or black. That said, I do support policies that offer opportunities to young people from whom opportunities have been withheld, historically and presently. I’ve taught academically talented students whose higher educations were truncated for lack of funds for tuition, university room and board, transportation, and books. I’ve known students whose futures were stunted due to an absence of parental support, and/or an absence of knowledge about how to access information about college. Early intervention strategies offered by some affirmative action programs have been the bridge between high school students who aspire to go to college and the college that will admit them.

As strongly as I favor these early intervention programs, I also recall two experiences that caused me to question the merits of some affirmative action policies.

One evening during my senior year in high school, the college counselor phoned my mother and explained why she felt I should apply for admission to Swarthmore College. She said Swarthmore was “looking for Negro students, and willing to offer financial aid…even scholarships!”

I never filled out Swarthmore’s application forms because I wanted to be accepted by a college/university based upon my academic record, not my color. I wondered if Swarthmore’s professors would have low expectations of me or pre-judge my work if they knew my admission was based upon my racial identity, not upon my abilities. Would my white classmates assume I was riding the tails of color and therefore held to a lower academic standard than they were? I suppose you could say I had a negative reaction to this particular brand of affirmative action.

Years later, during a social event, I witnessed an interaction between a white woman who was attending Temple University Law School, and a Black woman whose sister was an attorney in a Philadelphia law firm. The law school student asked the Black woman where her sister had earned her law degree.

The answer was given…and immediately countered with, “Oh, probably because of affirmative action.”

“No,” said the Black woman. “She was accepted by the top five law schools in the country. She chose Harvard as much as Harvard selected her.”

I gasped as I realized I’d just heard a verbalization that weaponized “affirmative action.” The white woman assumed the Black lawyer’s academic credentials hadn’t earned her admission to Harvard Law School. Her faulty assumption made me feel furious. Later, in retrospect, I felt such frustration. I understood how affirmative action programs could be used against people of color, and forever compel us to prove our abilities and academic talent repeatedly to those who learn early on to underestimate us.

In the midst of my teaching career, I reversed gears and returned to supporting affirmative action. I worked with so many good kids who were forced to live in bad situations. Some were smart-as-a-whip, wise or wizened before they should have been, kind when they felt it was safe to be kind, filled with dreams of successful adulthoods, and deserving of opportunities to develop their potential. These were the young people who could become physicians, attorneys, teachers, scholars, scientists, technology entrepreneurs, if only they were given the support affirmative action strategies offer.

So, at some point this year we’ll learn how the Supremes decide the above-mentioned cases. If they tank the specific affirmative action policies challenged in those cases…Okay, if Justice Thomas concurs those policies must go to the gallows, I hope he realizes his decision may prevent a future medical scientist from developing cures for several cancers or stop a future law student from becoming Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

© Renée Bess 2023

Renée Bess is the author of five novels, a collection of her short fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction, and the co-curator of the Goldie Award winning anthology, Our Happy Hours: LGBT Voices from the Gay Bars. Her website addy is:

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