Not Tired of Winning Yet CLXV Addendum: The Concurrence of Thomas

Addendum to an earlier post:

Justice Thomas, writing the concurring opinion in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, refuties the dissent of Justice Jackson. He produces such gems of judicial wisdom, faceted with clarity and brilliance, that I am unable to restrict myself to one paragraph or passage.

There are worse ways to idle away an hour, dear reader, and to read may restore one’s faith in human reason and in the American way of life. Here is treasure. 

This excerpt begins in Section IV of the concurrence, and omits  footnotes and references for ease of reading. 

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Far from advancing the cause of improved race relations in our Nation, affirmative action highlights our racial differences with pernicious effect.

In fact, recent history reveals a disturbing pattern: Affirmative action policies appear to have prolonged the asserted need for racial discrimination.

Parties and amici in these cases report that, in the nearly 50 years since Bakke, 438 U. S. 265, racial progress on campuses adopting affirmative action admissions policies has stagnated, including making no meaningful progress toward a colorblind goal since Grutter.

Rather, the legacy of Grutter appears to be ever increasing and strident demands for yet more racially oriented solutions.


It has become clear that sorting by race does not stop at the admissions office. In his Grutter opinion, Justice Scalia criticized universities for “talking of multiculturalism and racial diversity,” but supporting “tribalism and racial segregation on their campuses,” including through “minority only student organizations, separate minority housing opportunities, separate minority student centers, even separate minority-only graduation ceremonies.”

This trend has hardly abated with time, and today, such programs are commonplace.

In fact, a recent study considering 173 schools found that 43% of colleges offered segregated housing to students of different races, 46% offered segregated orientation programs, and 72% sponsored segregated graduation ceremonies.

In addition to contradicting the universities’ claims regarding the need for interracial interaction, these trends increasingly encourage our Nation’s youth to view racial differences as important and segregation as routine.

Meanwhile, these discriminatory policies risk creating new prejudices and allowing old ones to fester. I previously observed that “there can be no doubt” that discriminatory affirmative action policies “injure White and Asian applicants who are denied admission because of their race.”

Petitioner here clearly demonstrates this fact. Moreover, “no social science has disproved the notion that this discrimination ‘engenders attitudes of superiority or, alternatively, provokes resentment among those who believe that they have been wronged by the government’s use of race.’ ”

Applicants denied admission to certain colleges may come to believe—accurately or not—that their race was responsible for their failure to attain a life-long dream. These individuals, and others who wished for their success, may resent members of what they perceive to be favored races, believing that the successes of those individuals are unearned.

What, then, would be the endpoint of these affirmative action policies? Not racial harmony, integration, or equality under the law. Rather, these policies appear to be leading to a world in which everyone is defined by their skin color, demanding ever-increasing entitlements and preferences on that basis. Not only is that exactly the kind of factionalism that the Constitution was meant to safeguard against, see The Federalist No. 10 (J. Madison), but it is a factionalism based on ever-shifting sands.

That is because race is a social construct; we may each identify as members of particular races for any number of reasons, having to do with our skin color, our heritage, or our cultural identity. And, over time, these ephemeral, socially constructed categories have often shifted. For example, whereas universities today would group all white applicants together, white elites previously sought to exclude Jews and other white immigrant groups from higher education. In fact, it is impossible to look at an individual and know definitively his or her race; some who would consider themselves black, for example, may be quite fair skinned. Yet, university admissions policies ask individuals to identify themselves as belonging to one of only a few reductionist racial groups. With boxes for only “black,” “white,” “Hispanic,” “Asian,” or the ambiguous “other,” how is a Middle Eastern person to choose? Someone from the Philippines?

Whichever choice he makes (in the event he chooses to report a race at all), the form silos him into an artificial category. Worse, it sends a clear signal that the category matters.

But, under our Constitution, race is irrelevant, as the Court acknowledges. In fact, all racial categories are little more than stereotypes, suggesting that immutable characteristics somehow conclusively determine a person’s ideology, beliefs, and abilities. Of course, that is false.

Members of the same race do not all share the exact same experiences and viewpoints; far from it. A black person from rural Alabama surely has different experiences than a black person from Manhattan or a black first-generation immigrant from Nigeria, in the same way that a white person from rural Vermont has a different perspective than a white person from Houston, Texas. Yet, universities’ racial policies suggest that racial identity “alone constitutes the being of the race or the man.” J. Barzun, Race: A Study in Modern Superstition 114 (1937).

That is the same naked racism upon which segregation itself was built. Small wonder, then, that these policies are leading to increasing racial polarization and friction. This kind of reductionist logic leads directly to the “disregard for what does not jibe with preconceived theory,” providing a “cloak to conceal complexity, argument to the crown for praising or damning without the trouble of going into details”—such as details about an individual’s ideas or unique background.

Rather than forming a more pluralistic society, these policies thus strip us of our individuality and undermine the very diversity of thought that universities purport to seek.

The solution to our Nation’s racial problems thus cannot come from policies grounded in affirmative action or some other conception of equity. Racialism simply cannot be undone by different or more racialism. Instead, the solution announced in the second founding is incorporated in our Constitution: that we are all equal, and should be treated equally before the law without regard to our race. Only that promise can allow us to look past our differing skin colors and identities and see each other for what we truly are: individuals with unique thoughts, perspectives, and goals, but with equal dignity and equal rights under the law.


JUSTICE JACKSON has a different view. Rather than focusing on individuals as individuals, her dissent focuses on the historical subjugation of black Americans, invoking statistical racial gaps to argue in favor of defining and categorizing individuals by their race. As she sees things, we are all inexorably trapped in a fundamentally racist society, with the original sin of slavery and the historical subjugation of black Americans still determining our lives today.

The panacea, she counsels, is to unquestioningly accede to the view of elite experts and reallocate society’s riches by racial means as necessary to “level the playing field,” all as judged by racial metrics.  I strongly disagree.

First, as stated above, any statistical gaps between the average wealth of black and white Americans is constitutionally irrelevant. I, of course, agree that our society is not, and has never been, colorblind. People discriminate against one another for a whole host of reasons. But, under the Fourteenth Amendment, the law must disregard all racial distinctions:

“[I]n view of the constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved.” Ibid.

With the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, the people of our Nation proclaimed that the law may not sort citizens based on race. It is this principle that the Framers of the Fourteenth Amendment adopted in the wake of the Civil War to fulfill the promise of equality under the law. And it is this principle that has guaranteed a Nation of equal citizens the privileges or immunities of citizenship and the equal protection of the laws. To now dismiss it as “two-dimensional flatness,” post, at 25 (JACKSON, J., dissenting), is to abdicate a sacred trust to ensure that our “honored dead . . . shall not have died in vain.” A. Lincoln, Gettysburg Address (1863).

Yet, JUSTICE JACKSON would replace the second Founders’ vision with an organizing principle based on race. In fact, on her view, almost all of life’s outcomes may be unhesitatingly ascribed to race.

This is so, she writes, because of statistical disparities among different racial groups. Even if some whites have a lower household net worth than some blacks, what matters to JUSTICE JACKSON is that the average white household has more wealth than the average black household.

This lore is not and has never been true. Even in the segregated South where I grew up, individuals were not the sum of their skin color. Then as now, not all disparities are based on race; not all people are racist; and not all differences between individuals are ascribable to race. Put simply, “the fate of abstract categories of wealth statistics is not the same as the fate of a given set of flesh-and-blood human beings.” T. Sowell, Wealth, Poverty and Politics 333 (2016).

Worse still, JUSTICE JACKSON uses her broad observations about statistical relationships between race and select measures of health, wealth, and well-being to label all blacks as victims. Her desire to do so is unfathomable to me. I cannot deny the great accomplishments of black Americans, including those who succeeded despite long odds.

Nor do JUSTICE JACKSON’s statistics regarding a correlation between levels of health, wealth, and well-being between selected racial groups prove anything. Of course, none of those statistics are capable of drawing a direct causal link between race—rather than socioeconomic status or any other factor—and individual outcomes.

So JUSTICE JACKSON supplies the link herself: the legacy of slavery and the nature of inherited wealth. This, she claims, locks blacks into a seemingly perpetual inferior caste. Such a view is irrational; it is an insult to individual achievement and cancerous to young minds seeking to push through barriers, rather than consign themselves to permanent victimhood.

If an applicant has less financial means (because of generational inheritance or otherwise), then surely a university may take that into account. If an applicant has medical struggles or a family member with medical concerns, a university may consider that too. What it cannot do is use the applicant’s skin color as a heuristic, assuming that because the applicant checks the box for “black” he therefore conforms to the university’s monolithic and reductionist view of an abstract, average black person.

Accordingly, JUSTICE JACKSON’s race-infused world view falls flat at each step. Individuals are the sum of their unique experiences, challenges, and accomplishments. What matters is not the barriers they face, but how they choose to confront them. And their race is not to blame for everything—good or bad—that happens in their lives. A contrary, myopic world view based on individuals’ skin color to the total exclusion of their personal choices is nothing short of racial determinism.

JUSTICE JACKSON then builds from her faulty premise to call for action, arguing that courts should defer to “experts” and allow institutions to discriminate on the basis of race. Make no mistake: Her dissent is not a vanguard of the innocent and helpless. It is instead a call to empower privileged elites, who will “tell us [what] is required to level the playing field” among castes and classifications that they alone can divine.

Then, after siloing us all into racial castes and pitting those castes against each other, the dissent somehow believes that we will be able—at some undefined point—to “march forward together” into some utopian vision.  Social movements that invoke these sorts of rallying cries, historically, have ended disastrously.

Unsurprisingly, this tried-and-failed system defies both law and reason.

Start with the obvious: If social reorganization in the name of equality may be justified by the mere fact of statistical disparities among racial groups, then that reorganization must continue until these disparities are fully eliminated, regardless of the reasons for the disparities and the cost of their elimination. If blacks fail a test at higher rates than their white counterparts (regardless of whether the reason for the disparity has anything at all to do with race), the only solution will be race-focused measures. If those measures were to result in blacks failing at yet higher rates, the only solution would be to double down. In fact, there would seem to be no logical limit to what the government may do to level the racial playing field—outright wealth transfers, quota systems, and racial preferences would all seem permissible. In such a system, it would not matter how many innocents suffer race-based injuries; all that would matter is reaching the race-based goal.

Worse, the classifications that JUSTICE JACKSON draws are themselves race-based stereotypes. She focuses on two hypothetical applicants, John and James, competing for admission to UNC. John is a white, seventh-generation legacy at the school, while James is black and would be the first in his family to attend UNC.

JUSTICE JACKSON argues that race-conscious admission programs are necessary to adequately compare the two applicants. As an initial matter, it is not clear why James’s race is the only factor that could encourage UNC to admit him; his status as a first-generation college applicant seems to contextualize his application. But, setting that aside, why is it that John should be judged based on the actions of his great-great-great-grandparents?

And what would JUSTICE JACKSON say to John when deeming him not as worthy of admission: Some statistically significant number of white people had advantages in college admissions seven generations ago, and you have inherited their incurable sin?

Nor should we accept that John or James represent all members of their respective races. All racial groups are heterogeneous, and blacks are no exception—encompassing northerners and southerners, rich and poor, and recent immigrants and descendants of slaves. See, e.g., T. Sowell, Ethnic America 220 (1981) (noting that the great success of West Indian immigrants to the United States—disproportionate among blacks more broadly—“seriously undermines the proposition that color is a fatal handicap in the American economy”).

Eschewing the complexity that comes with individuality may make for an uncomplicated narrative, but lumping people together and judging them based on assumed inherited or ancestral traits is nothing but stereotyping.

To further illustrate, let’s expand the applicant pool beyond John and James. Consider Jack, a black applicant and the son of a multimillionaire industrialist. In a world of race-based preferences, James’ seat could very well go to Jack rather than John—both are black, after all. And what about members of the numerous other racial and ethnic groups in our Nation? What about Anne, the child of Chinese immigrants? Jacob, the grandchild of Holocaust survivors who escaped to this Nation with nothing and faced discrimination upon arrival? Or Thomas, the greatgrandchild of Irish immigrants escaping famine?

While articulating her black and white world (literally), JUSTICE JACKSON ignores the experiences of other immigrant groups (like Asians) and white communities that have faced historic barriers.

Though JUSTICE JACKSON seems to think that her racebased theory can somehow benefit everyone, it is an immutable fact that “every time the government uses racial criteria to ‘bring the races together,’ someone gets excluded, and the person excluded suffers an injury solely because of his or her race.”

Indeed, JUSTICE JACKSON seems to have no response—no explanation at all—for the people who will shoulder that burden. How, for example, would JUSTICE JACKSON explain the need for race-based preferences to the Chinese student who has worked hard his whole life, only to be denied college admission in part because of his skin color? If such a burden would seem difficult to impose on a bright-eyed young person, that’s because it should be. History has taught us to abhor theories that call for elites to pick racial winners and losers in the name of sociological experimentation.

Nor is it clear what another few generations of race- conscious college admissions may be expected to accomplish. Even today, affirmative action programs that offer an admissions boost to black and Hispanic students discriminate against those who identify themselves as members of other races that do not receive such preferential treatment. Must others in the future make sacrifices to re-level the playing field for this new phase of racial subordination? And then, out of whose lives should the debt owed to those further victims be repaid? This vision of meeting social racism with government-imposed racism is thus self-defeating, resulting in a never-ending cycle of victimization. There is no reason to continue down that path. In the wake of the Civil War, the Framers of the Fourteenth Amendment charted a way out: a colorblind Constitution that requires the government to, at long last, put aside its citizens’ skin color and focus on their individual achievements.

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My comment. For those who are TL;DNR, allow me to draw your attention to a single paragraph:

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The great failure of this country was slavery and its progeny. And, the tragic failure of this Court was its misinterpretation of the Reconstruction Amendments, as Justice Harlan predicted in Plessy. We should not repeat this mistake merely because we think, as our predecessors thought, that the present arrangements are superior to the Constitution. The Court’s opinion rightly makes clear that Grutter is, for all intents and purposes, overruled.

And, it sees the universities’ admissions policies for what they are: rudderless, race-based preferences designed to ensure a particular racial mix in their entering classes. Those policies fly in the face of our colorblind Constitution and our Nation’s equality ideal. In short, they are plainly—and boldly—unconstitutional.