Language in Focus: Affirmative Action

Decoding the Language of the SCOTUS Affirmative Action Decision in Order to Advance Equity

Much has already been written about the profoundly negative impact that the recent Supreme Court decision on Affirmative Action will have on American higher education and society. We must continue the work of building a more equitable and just society in the face of this setback. The removal of key legal mechanisms to remedy the racial injustices that our country was built on is not the end of this story.

As we go on to write the next chapter, one way that we can all contribute is by intentionally using plain language to speak directly about the reality of this topic. Many media outlets get caught up in the tide of language drawn from the majority opinion – but in this case, that language obscures our topic. 

We have observed a few key language patterns that could be helpful to you while discussing the issues, making media statements and doing the work to support a race-conscious approach to political change. 

  1. “Colorblind” and  “Race Neutral”: These terms are being thrown around in the media and were important for the actual court hearings and final opinions. They are really implying that we can write laws and create policies that do no harm as long as they do not reference skin color. But, our society (opportunity, access, power, presumptions of innocence and good intentions etc.) has always been strongly influenced by race, even when we do not talk about it.

    Instead: Let’s talk about the impact of intentionally ignoring race. When we assume that removing reference to race results in neutrality, we are really opting to allow race to be used as a factor in decision-making informally, without any discussion of its impact. Just because fish refuse to talk about water, doesn’t mean the water doesn’t exist. It still influences everyone – we are just not talking about it. 
  1. “Legacy”: Both universities involved in the cases explicitly shared that they formally take legacy into account when making final decisions on college applications. But what does this mean? Legacy refers to whether a family member has attended the institution in the past. Were your father, grandfather or uncle (or all three) admitted into the school? If so, then you are more likely to be accepted. Legacy is also used as a catch-all term to refer to the group of students whose applications are given a boost because of some special exception: recruited athletes, those on the dean’s interest list, and children of faculty and staff.

    Instead: Let’s talk about special treatment. Schools like Harvard, the University of North Carolina and many others provide special consideration for legacy students when deciding to accept applicants. This special treatment is also embedded in our history of racial injustice because the term legacy obscures race. One study showed these exceptions are provided to students who are much more likely to be White (43%) than Black, Hispanic or Asian (each respectively less than 16% of exception cases). This demonstrates clearly why ignoring race does not remove the racial implications of policies, but does result in unequal treatment of applicants, as access, opportunities, resources and legacy are not equally distributed throughout the population because of our history of injustice. Let’s recognize history, including a full telling of what has come before, rather than a selective choice to provide special treatment to people with certain kinds of history.
  1. “Racial Equality”: Most people on both sides of the discussion around the SCOTUS decision will say that racial equality is good. Let’s not get stuck there. The concept of equality is a blunt and imprecise tool. It’s so imprecise that it has been used to claim in this court case that equal treatment means ignoring race and our history of racial injustice altogether.

    Instead: Let’s talk about racial equity. Equity means pursuing the goals of fairness and just policy outcomes by taking into account where communities and individuals stand and the history that has led to this point. We can all agree that using race to stereotype is bad practice and discriminatory. But recognizing trends in the experiences of groups that are racialized is not a stereotype. It’s understanding what data shows us about how race influences the distribution of social goods.

Shaping the systems we live in starts with changing the narratives and language we use to talk about them. Drop us a line to start shaping your communications toward a world of Narrative Justice.

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