In its decision in Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. President & Fellows of Harvard College, the Supreme Court issued a very clear signal to the country: we are going backwards.
This decision is not about “fair” admissions. It is not even about affirmative action: It leaves intact, at least for now, affirmative action benefitting white women and children of donors. This is a decision about how we are, or are not, willing to acknowledge our history, recognize how that history shows up in the lives of Black and Brown people today, and ignores the fact that dismantling racism helps us all.
Let’s start with a few realities.
First: rolling back affirmative action in higher education will result in lower levels of enrollment, attainment, and lifelong earnings for students of color. A 2020 study looked at the longitudinal impacts of California’s Proposition 209, which banned the consideration of race for admission to California public universities in 1998. In its first year, Black and Latino enrollment at the state’s most competitive universities dropped; over time, this resulted in wage losses of 5% annually.
The impacts on enrollment were immediate. The impacts on wage gaps were and will continue to be substantial. The educational impacts for all students whose education is enhanced by a diverse student body is immeasurable. California is a “canary in the coal mine,” showing what lies ahead if nothing is done.
Second: this is bad for everyone. Colorado already shows racial disparities in postsecondary education. For example, based on 2020 findings by the Bell Policy Center in a feasibility study related to postsecondary outcomes, just 25% of Black Coloradans over the age of 18 have a postsecondary degree or credential. Just 26% over the age of 25 have a Bachelor’s, compared to 47% of White Coloradans.
This higher education problem is also an economic problem: 91.4% of top jobs in our state require some postsecondary attainment, meaning 75% of our Black residents do not have the credentials needed to access good jobs and livable wages. By many measures, this is getting worse. For example, in 2000 the median wage for a Black Coloradan was 86% of the median wage for a white Coloradan. In 2017 it was 78%.
To boil it down, racial equity in postsecondary access and attainment is essential for closing earning and wealth gaps. Closing these gaps absolutely matters to Black and Brown families. It also matters to any of us who want a vibrant economy and all that it brings: public resources, clear streets and safe, quality schools. A McKinsey study finds that closing the racial wealth gap could add $1 trillion to $1.5 trillion to the national economy by 2028, an increase equivalent to 4 to 6% percent of our GDP. What could closing racial gaps in attainment, earning and wealth mean for us here, in Colorado?
Colorado does things its own way. We have a track record of independent thought and action. So, the question I want us to consider is this: as the Supreme Court decision signals a slide backwards towards race-blindness and race discrimination, what can Colorado do to build a fair and equitable future?
As a state, we can recognize that postsecondary gaps begin in our K-12 systems and invest more deeply in the mental health resources and advanced coursework necessary for a robust education. We can applaud our state’s postsecondary leaders, who issued a recent statement ensuring their commitment to “fostering a diverse, inclusive and equitable environment” in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision while also asking them to do more, like directing more resources towards scholarships and student navigational supports. We can continue, as a state, to invest in non-traditional post-secondary pathways that make high quality postsecondary programs resulting in a living wage accessible and affordable to learners of all ages.
Many of these courses of action are ones already in motion, and this is to be celebrated. However, most (if not all) of these solutions are race blind; they seek to solve a problem hundreds of years in the making through a “rising tides lifts all boats” approach. As Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown-Jackson says, “deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life.” Common sense says that if we want to solve a problem, we must name it, focus on it, and create solutions designed for it. There is no solution to racism that does not acknowledge racism or use race as part of the design for a better future.
What could this look like, here at home? According to legal scholars, the path to racially conscious anti-racism would start with a consolidated documentation of anti-Black or anti-Brown racism, here at home. Documentation would be used as the basis for policy recommendations and policy actions that are designed to right specific historical wrongs. We have already seen examples of this in action, both the publicly funded Auraria campus free tuition program and the privately funded Dearfield Fund for Black Wealth.
These powerful programs are models for our state, showing how resources can be invested strategically towards families and communities in ways that honor our past, reflect our present realities, and create future opportunities for equity.
The Supreme Court decision is moving backwards. Colorado can move forwards.
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