“Not everything that is faced can be changed,
but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Justice Ketanji Jackson opened her dissent in Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College with these words: “Gulf-sized race-based gaps exist with respect to the health, wealth, and well-being of American citizens. They were created in the distant past, but have indisputably been passed down to the present day through the generations. Every moment these gaps persist is a moment in which this great country falls short of actualizing one of its foundational principles — the “self-evident” truth that all of us are created equal.”
In contrast, Justice Clarence Thomas’s concurring opinion was rooted deeply in his “defense of the colorblind constitution” as he argued that he saw no evidence of “concrete and quantifiable educational benefits of racial diversity.” Contained within the word colorblind is the reason why Justice Thomas cannot see the evidence that was presented in the voluminous record in this case. You cannot choose to be blind and then argue that you cannot see what is in front of you.
These starkly different lenses through which to view (or ignore) the lived experience of race in America seem to be presenting two different choices for negotiating race in our society. However, a closer look reveals the reality that these lenses aren’t alternative philosophies of race; they are simply the choice between sight and blindness. Justice Jackson asks us to look at the race-based gaps in front of us so that we can deal with them; Justice Thomas literally asks us to be blind to the gaps.
To paraphrase James Baldwin, we may not be able to change every race-based gap that we are willing to face, but we will definitely not change any race-based gap that we are unwilling to face. Justice Thomas’ opinion isn’t based on the lack of evidence of race-based gaps; it’s based on his willful blindness to the evidence.
Let’s explore the sight vs. vision lenses in one area of American life. Take a look at the following graph from The Commonwealth Fund’s 2022 study on maternal mortality and see if you can spot the gulf-sized race-based gap:
Maternal morbidity is defined by the World Health Organization as “the death of a woman…irrespective of the duration and the site of the pregnancy, from any cause related to or aggravated by the pregnancy or its management, but not from accidental or incidental causes.” About 85% of maternal morbidities are preventable. Setting aside the horrific fact that giving birth is more dangerous in the US than in any other developed country, giving birth as a Black mother in the US is more than twice as dangerous as giving birth as a White mother.
According to physicians, two of the most pernicious causes of black women’s maternal morbidity rates are “allostatic load” (the cumulative physiological effects of chronic stress) and overt and implicit bias from health care providers. Researchers who study racial disparities in maternal morbidity consistently cite a primary source of solutions to decreasing this gulf-sized race-based gap as diversifying the physician and healthcare leadership populations. As one study summarized it, “having more Black doctors in a community was linked to better survival-related outcomes for Black people.”
More Black doctors and more Black leaders in healthcare mean fewer Black mothers dying in childbirth. How do we get more Black doctors and Black leaders in healthcare? We start with more Black students getting into and graduating from college.
This is just one example of the evidence of gulf-sized race-based gaps in America and one of the strongest correlated solutions to decreasing the gap. We can change the gap if we face the gap, or we can continue to be blind to gaps such as these.
The racial gap in maternal mortality is just one example of what happens when we pretend that colorblindness is a virtue instead of a color vision deficiency that is diagnosed by ophthalmologists. There is a reason that colorblindness is diagnosed as a deficiency; it means we see less when we are colorblind.
The two different lenses through which we see and understand the experience of race in America aren’t philosophical or constitutional lenses. Justice Jackson’s lens is one that asks us to see what is in front of us so that we can have a chance to change it. Justice Thomas’ lens is one that asks us to be blind to what is in front of us, and we cannot change what we choose not to see.
I was expecting to feel anger and frustration as I read this Supreme Court decision. I was surprised to feel more sadness than either anger or frustration. After reflecting on this sadness, I realized that what’s missing from the pages of this opinion is the reality of human suffering in the race-based gaps. Justice Jackson’s lens asks us to look at this suffering unflinchingly; Justice Thomas’ lens asks us to look away.
This decision will have repercussions for college admissions, workplaces, and the work that we all do to advance justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. When we are confronted with these repercussions, let’s not get philosophical or constitutional in our responses. Let’s face what is in front of us and ask ourselves if we choose sight or blindness. Both choices come with consequences, but only sight comes with the opportunity for change.