Most scholars and pundits are predicting that the Supreme Court will vote to overturn affirmative action as a part of the college admission process. The formal decisions on the two cases are expected by the end of the week, when the Court finishes its term. Anticipating this outcome, colleges and universities have been preparing to find alternate ways to secure racial diversity in their incoming classes, because – as the President of Amherst College said to a group of alumni at my recent 50th college reunion, maintaining diversity is a fundamental component of a quality educational experience. A friend of mine, who was on an admissions committee at a highly selective university, indicated that they are already devising “workarounds”, in order to arrive at racial balance. Seeking information on applicants’ family income, country of origin, athletic and academic achievement, are all permitted; but any questions about race will not be allowed.
Now it may be that the Supreme Court will reaffirm affirmative action, which has been the practice for nearly fifty years; or adjusts it to a minor degree. But whatever the outcome, the two cases evoke the temptation, if not the desire, to have the issue of race go away.
It won’t. Nor should it.
In the book of Genesis, Jacob spends a night wrestling with an angel. When dawn arrives, it is clear that Jacob will prevail, but not before his hip is put out of joint, and he is left with a permanent limp. (Genesis 32:31) As a country, for centuries we have wrestled with race and racism. The wrestling has left us, all of us, of any race or ethnicity, with a cultural limp. It is our historical legacy. The limp is existential, yet it can manifest itself in physical, psychological, and spiritual ways. Our limps are different, depending on race, history, or circumstance; some are crippling, some are barely noticeable. Whenever the limp came, and however it manifests itself, we each have inherited a limp that requires our attention. Now there are many, particularly among those of us who live in the dominant American culture, who say, “I don’t have a limp, especially from my wrestling with race…because I don’t need to wrestle with race…it’s no longer an issue, with me, anyway…” or “I maybe had a limp once, but now it’s gone. We just need to get over it.”
I have made some of those statements. As one whose lineage makes both subtle and overt claims to a privileged racial birthright, I was able to delude myself into thinking that I didn’t need to wrestle with race. For most of my adolescence, I lived in a well-to-do, virtually all-white community. Race was outside our borders, and was not welcomed in. There were some very carefully organized wrestling matches on the subject, but they were rather shallow and limited to the theoretical; in my memory no one ever walked away with a limp. Denying the limp, or refusing to acknowledge it, is a way to avoid the embrace of diversity, and which ultimately hurts us all.
Things changed when I got to college. We wrestled with racial injustice. Openly and directly. It was hard work. We needed to keep at it. I discovered we all had a limp. There were the limps of those who had long been oppressed, and there were the limps of those who had been the oppressors. There were the limps of those who had truly wrestled, and the limps of those who wrestled to avoid really wrestling.
The realities of white security and birthright privilege make it difficult to say that the limp white people carry is real and permanent. So many live with the notion that this limp can be wished or willed away, a denial of the racial prejudice that everyone has learned or inherited. If there is an original sin, it is our prejudice, our inability to see our common belovedness. We all learned it – at the kitchen table or on the playground or in the school cafeteria, or from skewed readings of the Bible – or in church. We all learned it. To deny our prejudice, our limp, is self-deception. There are some genealogists who make the case that this prejudice is bred into us. It is our inherent limp. It is the weed of original sin that keeps cropping up in the garden of life, threatening the fragile nature of the world’s harmony and undermining our integrity.
The Supreme Court may decide that we should no longer wrestle with race. That will be unfortunate. Regardless of the outcome, the rest of us need to keep at it.