Opinion: Don’t taint Supreme Court nominee with stigma of affirmative action

February 8, 2022 3:00 am
U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. (Ariana Figueroa/States Newsroom)

The distorted misinformation about affirmative action is once again raising its ugly head around the potential nomination of a Black woman to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Before any qualified, likely overqualified, Black woman is nominated for the Supreme Court, her reputation is being tainted by the notion that the only reason she is being considered is because of affirmative action.

The deliberate disparagement is not only coming from misguided divisive media personalities, but also from the U.S. Senate.

What a gross injustice to attempt to discredit and marginalize Black women in America one more time, in the most public way — casting one more debasement in their historic march toward equality.

Must American history continue to bear such an ugly stain.

Rightful, legal path for equal access

What is affirmative action?

Affirmative action has a long history in this country as an attempt to stop and correct the systemic discrimination and oppression of Blacks. The initial attempts began during the Reconstruction Era (1863-1877) shortly after the Civil War.

Laws, policies and guidelines have been passed across a number of presidential administrations, which include those of Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama.

These policies sought to provide the rightful and legal path for equal access to employment, education, housing and other rights and privileges for Blacks and later women.

But affirmative action has been deliberately and maliciously recast over the years, most notably in the admissions process to institutions of higher education, especially when it comes to the admission of Blacks.

Former President Donald Trump sought to roll back affirmative action policies enacted during the Obama administration, particularly those addressing admission to higher institutions of learning.

There seems to be a collective amnesia as to why there was a need for affirmative action measures in the first place.

Can’t undo degradation

When it comes to Blacks, unlike any other group in this country, there have been centuries of denial, disenfranchisement, oppression, unequal or no access to a quality education, jobs, housing. Even the basic humane privileges, like having access to a place to eat, sleep, go to the bathroom or get a sip of water, were often out of reach.

So, today, affirmative action measures put in place to stop these egregious practices are perceived as unfair and as some unmerited advantage for simply enabling Blacks to access what is afforded and readily available to other Americans.

Frankly, no amount of affirmative action measures can undo or remedy the degradation and deprivation Blacks have suffered and endured during the history of this country and continue to endure.

Being Black and a woman has another set of daunting challenges and burdens of proof, which brings us back to the subject at hand: the prospect of having the first Black woman jurist on the Supreme Court.

What about other appointments?

Why must the jurist chosen carry the stain that she was only chosen because of affirmative action? Why is President Joe Biden being singled out as doing something out of line?

Was it considered affirmative action or out of line when President Ronald Reagan declared while campaigning that he would appoint the first woman to the Supreme Court? Was it affirmative action when he followed through and appointed Sandra Day O’Connor?

Was it affirmative action when Jewish (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan), Italian (Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito) and Latina (Sonia Sotomayor) jurists were appointed? What about Clarence Thomas, a Black man? Was President Trump’s appointment of Amy Coney Barrett affirmative action?

Was affirmative action even mentioned with these appointees?

Where is the animus, venom and recoil at the very prospect of a Black woman being added to the Supreme Court coming from? It certainly cannot be based on the lack of qualifications.

Whichever candidate is chosen, you can be assured that she will be just as qualified, if not more so, than some current justices.

Whoever is chosen, it is worth the time to review their qualifications before concluding it is just another affirmative action appointment.

Suffragists, leaders, scientists

February, the shortest month in the year, is Black History Month, which was established as a national observance in 1976 by President Gerald Ford. Clearly one month is woefully inadequate to cover the history of Blacks in America.

But there might be some enlightenment to be gained by spending a little time to look at the extraordinary achievements and contributions of Blacks, particularly Black women, before there were any affirmative action measures in place.

The space here is inadequate to name them all. Some names are familiar and well known because attention is brought to them once a year or on some special commemoration. Many are not. But to name a few: pioneering suffragists like Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, Fannie Barrier Williams; world renowned authors like Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou; distinguished political leaders like Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Jordan.

And then there are the brilliant mathematicians and scientists like Melba Roy, Katherine Johnson, Christine Darden who despite discrimination were critical to the achievements at NASA during the 1960s; and trail blazing educators like Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, Nannie Helen Burroughs who established institutions, and Dr. Inez Beverly Prosser who became the first black female psychologist in 1933.

If you are unfamiliar, take some time and look them up. As you do, there is no doubt you will learn of so many others who have achieved throughout American history.

Black women have made, and continue to make, extraordinary contributions in areas and disciplines from A to Z — from the arts to zoology, without affirmative action.

They do not deserve wearing the yoke of having done so because of some special treatment or privilege. What a gross disregard for succeeding despite the hurdles and roadblocks and doing it exceptionally well.

Godspeed to the first Black woman named to the highest court in the land.

May she wear the deserved honor proudly.

This commentary first appeared in the Missouri Independenta sister site of the Nebraska Examiner in the States Newsroom network.

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Janice Ellis
Janice Ellis

Janice Ellis has lived and worked in Missouri for more than three decades, analyzing educational, political, social and economic issues across race, ethnicity, age and socio-economic status. Her commentary has appeared in The Kansas City Star, in community newspapers, on radio and now online. She is the author of two award-winning books: From Liberty to Magnolia: In Search of the American Dream (2018) and Shaping Public Opinion: How Real Advocacy Journalism™ Should be Practiced (2021). Ellis holds a Ph.D. in communication arts, and two Master of Arts degrees, one in communications arts and a second in political science, all from the University of Wisconsin.