'Race must now constitute a merit': Author Michael Eric Dyson on Supreme Court ruling

The High Court on Thursday rolled back affirmative action at U.S. colleges.

June 30, 2023, 2:00 PM

The Supreme Court on Thursday rolled back affirmative action at U.S. colleges and universities, ruling they can no longer take race into consideration when admitting new students.

The court held, in a 6-3 opinion for the conservative majority written by Chief Justice John Roberts, that Harvard and the University of North Carolina's admissions programs violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

The controversial ruling was both publicly praised and criticized. Author and Vanderbilt University African American studies professor Michael Eric Dyson spoke to ABC News’ Linsey Davis about why he believes the Supreme Court made the wrong decision.

LINSEY DAVIS: So you just heard Vivek's take there. Your reaction?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Yeah. He's a bright guy. I'm sure he's well intending, but he is philosophically flawed. At the fundamental root of his argument is a serious contradiction. He keeps speaking about merit as if merit is an abstract conception that is absolute in all situations for all time. If I'm in a boxing ring, striking somebody in front of me is meritorious. If I'm in a home, it is either child abuse or domestic abuse. The act itself is the same. The intent and the consequence are determinative of what is meritorious.

So when we talk about race as a merit, race is a merit, because race has been used against African American and other minoritized and racialized groups in America for so long, race must now be a consideration in defense of and to the advantage of those African American people.

The Supreme Court in 1857 said the Black person, the Negro, has no rights that a white person is bound to respect. That is deeply entrenched in law. Was that a meritorious argument? The Supreme Court made an argument that fundamentally deprived African American people of their rights. We can't address the need to deal with the remuneration, the reparation, the reconciliation of Black people to a just future without taking race into account.

DAVIS: You know, I've heard a lot of critics say, well, you know, that was then, you know, slavery was so long ago. How much longer are we supposed to have these set apart programs for Black people? I mean, as you just heard Vivek say, that all the Black students who went to his public school, they had the same opportunities that he did.

DYSON: Well, look, how many Linsey Davises are there? How many Michael Eric Dysons are there? How many [ABC News President] Kim Godwins are there? How many people running Fortune 500 corporations? How many people have been president of the United States of America? How many have been senator? On and on and on. What about the housing crisis that continues to besiege American communities, especially African Americans? So when we look at every index of achievement, what the basic value of a Black family is versus a white family, that is not caused by laziness, that is not caused by the lack of, if you will, elbow grease. That is caused by systemic barriers that to this day persist in the face of ongoing attempts to render the American scene far more just. So we talk about something way back in the day. We're talking about what's going on right now before our faces.

DAVIS: You've certainly been critical of Justice Clarence Thomas, who's been a supporter of ending affirmative action, and he wrote a rare concurring opinion, calling our Constitution colorblind and saying, “While I am painfully aware of the social and economic ravages which have befallen my race and all who suffer discrimination, I hold out enduring hope that this country will live up to its principles so clearly enunciated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States: that all men are created equal, all are equal citizens, and must be treated equally under the law.” Your reaction to that?

DYSON: Trust but verify. I have a hope as well, that America will one day reach its goal. Martin Luther King Jr. articulated that dream in 1963, and he went right from that gathering to try to make certain that American democracy would be realized. He was fighting in Birmingham, where four girls were blown to their heavenly reward. He faced economic inequality in Watts and in Chicago. So here is a man who had the greatest hope that America could achieve those goals, but without the elbow grease, without the effort, without the systemic inequities being resolved, without addressing race head on, none of what a Clarence Thomas has suggested can possibly come into play.

DAVIS: The case does mention other factors used in admissions at Harvard, including legacy status, recruited athletes and financial eligibility. Do you think it's fair to keep those in place while taking out race?

DYSON: Absolutely not. Think about Ira Katznelson, who wrote the book “When Affirmative Action Was White.” Let me let people settle in. “When Affirmative Action Was White.” What was he speaking about? The GI Bill. What did the GI Bill give white America? First of all, it created a white middle class and basically created white suburbia. What did it do? It gave people points on a test to get into school and money to attend. What did it do? It gave them money for housing, because owning a house was an elevator, or at least an escalator, into the middle class. What did it do? It gave them employment opportunities to be able to get a job.

That's the holy trinity of affirmative action. When it is applied to white Americans, it seems to be noncontroversial. When applied to African American people, not so much. But race has been a demerit for so long, race must now constitute a merit when addressing the issues of the persistence of racial inequality in America.

DAVIS: Michael Eric Dyson, always a pleasure to have you on the show. Thank you so much.

DYSON: Always great to be on. Thank you for having me.