Burned on the Fourth of July: Affirmative action, student debt forgiveness
The Fourth of July is upon us, and before you fire up the grill, think about what’s happening to the country as it moves toward becoming a majority-minority nation.
Celebrate the 247th, sure. It’s just harder to do so as the black robes of the high court char our rights away right under our eyes.
Last week the U.S. Supreme Court showed how far it will go to protect a dwindling white majority. In the final three rulings, it announced the law works especially well for you if you are straight, rich, and white.
Want a website for gay wedding? No business open to the public has to do one for you. It can now legally discriminate and exclude you. That doesn’t sound very American.
Help on student loan debt? Sorry, you have to pay up. Unless you’re a bank that passes out bad mortgages, no one’s bailing you out.
A hand up for being the first in your barkada qualified to go to an Ivy league school? The laws that might have helped last week, no longer apply. And don’t tell us what color you are. The court is indifferent to race.
As I said, justice got a little harder to achieve if you aren’t white, straight and rich.
That’s the takeaway after the high court’s grand finale. With all the news it’s been making on its lack of ethics, the unpopular court has proven to be more venal, human, and very political at its core.
It’s not the elevated dispassionate body that rules based on legal scholarship and a healthy respect for precedent.
It’s right there in the swamp with everything else in DC, a SCOTUS forged by politics and bias. And if you don’t vote, it’s the court we deserve. Want a better SCOTUS? No legal education is necessary. You’ve just got to register and vote.
After 50 years of moving toward a more just society, we’ve got ourselves the 6-3 rollback court.
It’s like we’re starting over. And there is now there is so much more to overcome.
I’ve always talked about being Filipino, American Filipino, Asian American Filipino by all my preferred designations for which there are no boxes.
I’ve just always talked about race. Because to not talk about it is to be invisible. And now, I’m upping the volume.
The Supreme Court made me do it. The six conservatives may have on their race blindfolds (the ones they want everyone to wear).
But they don’t have earplugs.
If you were bashful before, don’t be. It’s time for all of us to tell our stories. Cebuano. Ilocano. Tagalog. Tell it. Loudly. Race impacts your life but you don’t say so? Say it now.
Especially on college applications.
You may also like: Explainer: What happens if the Supreme Court bans affirmative action?
I had told a friend, a female Harvard classmate, that I thought I would cry when, as expected, the Supreme Court finally ruled against the use of race in college admissions. It would be like Dodd and Rowe. A roll back nearly 50 years. She understood.
And then the court ruled. But I didn’t cry.
Maybe it’s because I had a dental procedure scheduled that morning. Nothing like a double dose of Lidocaine to numb me while absorbing the opinion.
It helped me deal with the pain. I didn’t feel it. I just got mad.
First, I felt a little guilty. Could I have done something to save affirmative action—more than 50 years ago.
Chief Justice John Roberts was at Harvard the same time I was there. And realized I had failed in my original race mission back in the ‘70s. My mere presence at “that school in Boston” did not persuade young Roberts of the merits of diversity. What about the mutual benefits of having an underprivileged Filipino kid as part of the student body at Harvard? Because I was not just there to take. I was there to give to America’s future leaders, like Roberts, a real world understanding beyond white preppiedom, and to help him build the kind of empathy he’d need to have as a chief justice of the United States.
Had I succeeded–had our paths crossed–maybe Roberts would not have written such a terrible opinion that set back civil rights progress in higher education nearly 50 years.
Robert’s opinion was just wrong, beginning with his application of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to strike down the use of race in admissions.
“The Harvard and UNC admissions programs cannot be reconciled with the guarantees of the Equal Protection Clause,” wrote Roberts. “Both programs lack sufficiently focused and measurable objectives warranting the use of race, unavoidably employ race in a negative manner, involve racial stereotyping, and lack meaningful end points.
End points? Do you mean the meter’s running on justice and fairness and at some point racists just need to run out the clock?
The use of the Equal Protection Clause got the attention of Neal Katyal, former acting Solicitor General of the United States, who said that the Equal Protection Clause only binds state actors.
So can Harvard a private institution violate the Equal Protection Clause?
“Legally, that’s just impossible,” said Katyal, a law school professor of more than 20 years in an interview on MSNBC. Katyal pointed out that by virtue of taking federal funds Harvard could be in violation of Title VI, a federal statute. “But Harvard certainly didn’t violate the Constitution.”
But you can’t overturn nearly 50 years of civil rights precedent on a violation of a statute. It just looks better if you can say the Constitution’s been violated.
And that exposes the subjective political nature of the decision, legal precedents be damned.
If you feel bad about this decision, you’re in good company. Even the brightest legal minds in the nation were shaking their heads at this one. (I read from Justice Sotomayor’s opinion, which includes excerpts from the AALDEF amicus brief, on my Emil Amok’s Takeout, E.548. I also read from Judge Brown-Jackson’s scathing opinion. And a bit from Clarence Thomas’ opinion which includes his interpretation of Asian American history. See/hear the recordings on YouTube or Facebook).
At least Roberts didn’t formally overturn existing laws. That would have been too difficult. He just removed a key single piece—race.
By ruling that race could not be used in admissions, even in the narrow way it’s used today, was enough to neuter any law promoting affirmative action.
But Roberts did allow for a loophole:
“Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration or otherwise,” Roberts wrote. “In other words, the student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual—not on the basis of race.”
Well of course, for one, that would be a First Amendment issue and Roberts didn’t want to get entangled with that.
So you want to go to Harvard? Tell your story. That hasn’t changed in 50 years.
That’s how I got in.
There’s no time limit on the legacy of experienced racism that’s handed down if you can still be your own witness.
My grades were above average, and my test scores suggested I was born into a family and culture that didn’t relate to test scores. If I was going to get in, it was always going to be the essay.
I remember writing it by hand with an old plastic Bic pen. I pressed down so hard on the paper that it looked like a Dead Sea scroll.
The story was about my dad, who was 50 years older than me. He came in 1928 from the Philippines as a colonized American national, not a slave. Just a different variety of subservient. He wasn’t one of the students from well-heeled Filipino families. He was a Philippine farm boy in the U.S., where he couldn’t vote, become a citizen, own property, or intermarry. His asthma prevented him from working the fields in the Central Valley of California, where Filipinos were lynched. So he stayed in San Francisco and worked in restaurants as a cook.
Nearly 30 years passed before he was able to find a Filipino wife in the U.S. And then, I was born.
We never owned a car, were always renters, and moved every three years. But we ate chicken wings before they were cool.
In other words, I was born into Filipino American history. And still got good grades.
Harvard material? My father’s story was. It’s what I overcame.
The Harvard opinion makes it clear. On college applications, don’t say race; tell your race story.
That has always been the best shot.
This past February I was in New York City when I realized I’m still telling my father’s story, which includes Harvard, in my one-man show, “Emil Amok: Lost NPR Host.” (I‘m doing it again at the San Francisco Fringe, 277 Taylor Street, Sat. Aug. 12, 7p; Thurs. Aug. 17, 8:30p; Sat. Aug. 19, 1pm)
I invited several classmates from decades ago to come watch me perform and most of them showed up.
After the show, one friend said he was ashamed that he wasn’t curious enough to get to know more about me and my circumstances back then.
“I just assumed you were like me,” said the white Harvard legacy who then commented on the show. “It was incredibly moving and meaningful to be let in now and to have a better sense of who you are.”
I hadn’t seen him in more than forty years.
But there was some bond that we formed long ago that crossed all differences and still could be culled up all these years later.
And that is the magic of race in admissions, and why it’s still worth preserving given the new Roberts loophole.
When the magic works, our best notions of America are affirmed.
We must not let the court get in the way of that.
NOTE: I will talk about this column and other matters on “Emil Amok’s Takeout,” my AAPI micro-talk show. Live @2p Pacific. Livestream on Facebook; my YouTube channel; and Twitter. Catch the recordings on www.amok.com.
Emil Guillermo is a journalist and critic-at-large. He writes a column for Inquirer.net.