Screw SCOTUS. Higher Education Needs Racial Quotas.

If the United States leaned into racial quotas instead of running screaming from them, we might have seen results like Brazil's.

Back of woman's hat reading Freedom
Ultimately, diversity isn’t even about Black people. It’s about making white people feel good for throwing bones to Black folks. All photos by Austen Risolvato/Rewire News Group

I can’t stop thinking about the Supreme Court’s decision to end affirmative action in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard/University of North Carolina last term. Much in the way that I knew for certain that reproductive freedom would mean creating something better after Roe v. Wade fell, Black liberation requires affirmative action to repair the generational damage this country has done to Black people. And that means set-asides for Black people. It means racial quotas.

I can already hear the shrieking. “It’s not fair!”

“Why should I, John Q. Whiteperson, be penalized for something I didn’t do!”

“I don’t discriminate against Black people!”

“Some of my best friends are Black!”

I don’t care.

If you’re white, your whiteness is the baseline. And that means you have a leg up, irrespective of whatever other identities you claim.

Our Supreme Court should look like all of us

Did I just commit a racism by saying that? Probably. Lord knows if you say the word “white” out loud on social media, at least eight to ten white people are going to be outraged.

But I don’t care about that either. We need racial quotas.

What’s more, the two presidents who instituted affirmative action as a policy in this country—Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy—contemplated racial quotas. At least that’s how I read their executive orders.

We barely gave affirmative action a chance

In 1961, Kennedy issued an executive order that included a provision requiring government contractors to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.”

Later, in 1965, Johnson issued an executive order prohibiting employment discrimination based on those same characteristics for organizations receiving federal contracts and subcontracts. He later added sex to the list of attributes.

Johnson went further: Federal contractors with more than 50 employees and $50,000 in federal contracts would have to establish written affirmative action plans and placement goals for women and racial minorities. Compliance would require an official with the organization to be responsible for implementing the organization’s affirmative action program and establishing methods to accomplish the organization’s set placement goals for women and racial minorities.

By 1978, however, racial quotas had become disfavored because they weren’t fair to white people. Never mind the endemic anti-Blackness and inequality in the United States; a mere 14 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted, the Supreme Court ruled in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke that racial quotas were unconstitutional under the Civil Rights Act and the equal protection clause. In that case, like nearly every case challenging affirmative action in higher education after it (Grutter v. Bollinger, Gratz v. Bollinger, and Fisher v. University of Texas), a white student complained that a Black student had taken their place when, in reality, the problem was likely their own mediocrity. And even in SFFA v. Harvard/UNC, a case ostensibly about the way Harvard University and University of North Carolina’s admissions policies harmed Asian American students, concern about unfairness to white students was the focal point both in oral arguments and in the decision itself.

Fourteen years. After two-and-a-half centuries of slavery, setting aside some seats to make room for Black people who had been traditionally shut out of education opportunities—so much so that we had to create our own schools—was a bridge too far. It didn’t uphold the colorblind ideals that white conservatives reluctantly decided were paramount the minute they heard Martin Luther King Jr. say Those Words.

But what if the United States had leaned into racial quotas instead of running screaming from them? We might have seen results like Brazil’s.

Racial quotas worked in Brazil

In 2012, Brazil—a country that imported more than ten times the number of enslaved Africans than the United States and has more citizens of African heritage than any country outside of Africa—passed a law establishing a national affirmative action program.

Brazil’s “Law of Social Quotas” mandates that about half of applicants accepted into each program at federal universities must have attended public high schools, come from low-income families, or be members of racial minorities. Of that half, half the spots are reserved exclusively for Black, mixed-race, and Indigenous Brazilians. Low-income pupils attending public schools receive the other half. The purpose of the law was to address the racial and economic inequality that has plagued Brazil since the abolition of slavery.

Sound familiar?

In 2022, three researchers—Neil Lewis Jr. of Cornell University, Inácio Bó of the University of Macau, and Rodrigo Zeidan of New York University’s Shanghai campus—wrote a paper about the effects of affirmative action in Brazil. Their findings, which they summarized in an article for the Conversation, disprove talking points upon which opponents of affirmative action relied to criticize the law: that affirmative action is ineffective, leads to lower quality education for all students, and harms all Black students—whether beneficiaries of affirmative action or not—by stigmatizing them.

The researchers found that students admitted to universities via affirmative action performed very well in their studies, and that by the time students graduated, the beneficiaries of affirmative action had GPAs that weren’t much different from GPAs of other students. Students admitted into universities via affirmative action also didn’t hamper their peers’ studies or lead to lower quality education overall. In fact, some affirmative action beneficiaries outperformed peers who entered college without affirmative action. And students who were admitted via affirmative action ended up pursuing higher education degrees than they otherwise would have, and were “7 percent more likely to work as managers or directors later in their careers.”

Overall, in a decade, the enrollment of Black Brazilians at federal universities shot up by 400 percent.

In addition, the researchers found that race-neutral policies were ineffective for achieving racial diversity.

Diversity isn’t for Black people

I don’t particularly care about racial diversity in this country as a paramount goal. Racial diversity would inevitably result if the United States implemented a racial quota policy like Brazil’s.

I’ve long thought that the diversity rationale for university admissions was a cop-out anyway. It is a way to put a veneer of color-blindness on a policy that should not only be color-conscious, but which should be part of a government-funded program of reparations to Black people.

Diversity is the rationale white people came up with when we as a country decided that concern for hurt white feelings was more important than trying to repair the generational damage and inequality caused by slavery, fomented by Jim Crow, and maintained by white people’s apathy towards the damage that they—whether via their ancestors or their unabashed acceptance of the unearned privileges that attend their skin color—have caused Black people.

Ultimately, diversity isn’t even about Black people. It’s about making white people feel good for throwing bones to Black folks. It’s not a coincidence that diversity is frequently lauded as a way for sheltered white folks to finally meet a Black person. Diversity is often about tokenizing Black kids and using them to provide teaching moments to white people before they enter the world as titans of industry and politics.

Catalyst for change T-shirt

In a country that built its wealth off the wombs of Black women, many white people have been able to get ahead based solely on the color of their skin, and frankly, they should pay.

And since this country doesn’t view Black people as worthy of reparations, a depressing and abhorrent reality in and of itself, then at least have the decency to get out of the way of private businesses and companies that want to give Black people a fighting chance when it comes higher education, employment, and business opportunities. It’s only fair; after all, it was United States policy to put its full weight behind making sure Black people were kept as an oppressed underclass. Chattel slavery? The United States did that. Jim Crow? Yep. Redlining and segregated neighborhoods? The United States did that too. And when Black people were able to build something for themselves, White people would come and tear it down. Like they did in Tulsa. And in Rosewood.

So yes—I think Black people should have set-asides as a way to begin to make up for the systematic racism and discrimination that Black people still face.

But the opposite is happening.

For example, Ed Blum, the anti-affirmative action activist behind SFFA v. Harvard/UNC, scared Big Law firm Morrison and Foerster into allowing white people with a “demonstrated commitment to diversity” to enjoy benefits of a diversity fellowship they had previously set aside for underrepresented groups. (Any white person that accepts a diversity fellowship can’t possibly have a commitment to diversity—the very idea is absurd.)

Blum also filed a lawsuit against Fearless Fund, an Atlanta-based fund that invests in businesswomen of color and runs a grant contest with Mastercard to help Black women set up small businesses. (Approximately 1 percent of venture capital funds go to Black women. Apparently, that’s one percent too many.) A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals just recently blocked that program, ruling that it is racially discriminatory. Just as he did with SFFA v. Harvard/UNC, when he used Asian people as a Trojan horse for the grievance of white students, Blum is complaining that the grant program is unfair to non-Black women. And we’re just supposed to believe he cares about the financial fates of non-Black women. It’s laughable.

Take a page out of repro justice advocates’ playbook

It’s open season on affirmative action and diversity initiatives. In the wake of the Court’s decision in SFFA v. Harvard/UNC, people are fretting about how college admissions are going to be able to maintain the diversity of their student bodies. I can’t help but think that proponents of affirmative action need to take a page from the repro justice advocacy play book and go balls to the walls.

We don’t want a return to Roe. We want free abortions for all who need them.

When it comes to SFFA v. Harvard/UNC case, I don’t want a return to some strained point system that bolsters diversity at a school by giving extra consideration to people with certain characteristics. I want schools to set aside spots for Black, brown, and poor kids.

I want recognition that “merit” can’t be meritocratic in a society plagued by racism and bias. Systemic racism continues to impact Black people—it interferes with our capacity to build wealth, to buy homes in neighborhoods with the kinds of schools that feed into elite institutions like Harvard University. In fact, while having the same number of kids, districts with a majority of nonwhite children nationally earn $23 billion less in funding annually than districts with a majority of white students. A Black kid who goes to an underfunded school is at a disadvantage when compared to a rich white kid who goes to a well-funded public school or even a private school.

Affirmative action in front of the Supreme Court

I want white people to recognize this, and then I want them to do something about it.

Perhaps it is progressives’ fault that we are where we are. We ceded the argument that affirmative action was a recompense for the hundreds of years of slavery followed by the hundreds of years of white terrorism and Jim Crow in favor of outsized passion for “diversity.”

The notion that white people are, by and large, advantaged simply by virtue of their whiteness is an idea that is anathema to many white people. “I didn’t do anything. I never owned slaves. So why am I being punished?” That’s the mindset of far too many white people as they ignore their own whiteness and the ways in which their ancestors wielded whiteness as a weapon to deprive Black people of their homes, their families, their dignity and their very lives.

I don’t think white people have a clear understanding about what life was like for Black people historically and what it’s still like for Black people now. (And with the history of Black people in this country being tossed into the bin labeled “critical race theory,” all that white people will be left with is whitewashed versions of history.)

I want white people to gain that understanding and I want them to do it before Black people are shut out of civic society entirely and denied access to levers of power.

And then I want Black people to be paid what we are owed.