'I Respectfully Dissent:' Reflections on This Week in Race & Education

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Chris Thinnes

The Court ends the debate over race-sensitive
admissions policies in Michigan in a manner
that contravenes constitutional protections
long recognized in our precedents.

– Sonia Sotomayor

The problem now is, how are you going
to save yourselves?

– James Baldwin


When Proposition 209 reared its ugly head in California almost twenty years ago, threatening to end the consideration of race and ethnicity as a factor in California university admissions, I was pursuing a PhD in English at UCLA — busily researching race, ‘otherness,’ and trauma in English and American literature, and teaching introductory comp and lit classes anchored to similar themes. Without having to discuss it much we — those of us, to intimate Baldwin’s prophetic call, who were “relatively conscious” and who believed we “must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others” — knew it was time to close the books and cancel classes; that enough was enough.

When 33 of us shut down the busiest intersection in the United States in the middle of a workday, it felt right. It felt right to feel the gravelly asphalt of the Westwood & Wilshire intersection under my butt, deafened by the shouts of like-minded protesters. It felt right to have the LAPD officer pull the zip-ties around my wrists, and performatively shove me towards the police bus for the cameras, only to whisper in my ear a moment later, with the subtlest second-language accent, “We support what you are doing.” It felt right, when we were hauled off and turned over to the West L.A. PD, to keep chanting in the supply closet of the station — yes, the supply closet of the police station, into which several of us were shoved by somewhat less sympathetic officers, when they ran out of room in the holding room — to demonstrate our solidarity.

If felt right. And maybe it was right. But it — and gestures like it, no matter how well-intended — failed miserably.

As a summer NPR story, and other documents this week, remind me:

California is one of eight states that have already scrapped affirmative action. That means state schools can no longer consider the race of its applicants. At the University of California, Los Angeles, the change has been messy, ambiguous — and sometimes a little ugly.

After the state passed the ban in 1996, the percentages of black and Latino students at UCLA quickly began to fall. Things came to a head in 2006. That year, in a freshman class of nearly 5,000 students, just 96 were African-American.

I’m drawn to all these memories by the remarkable confluence of writing about three events this week:

The upcoming 60th anniversary of the “Brown v Board of Education” decision, and the opportunity noted by Valerie Strauss “to take a look at whether it succeeded in its mission: to end segregation in public schools.”

The national fiasco of Cliven Bundy’s protest, sympathetic militia members’ armed ‘resistance,’ and the reminder, as Ta-Nehisi Coates presents it: “Prick a movement built on white supremacy and it bleeds … white supremacy.”

The United States Supreme Court’s decision regarding affirmative action in Michigan — a decision simultaneously unthinkable and entirely predictable, following debate that was eerily and tragically resonant with misguided discourse in California 20 years ago — “permitting,” as Justice Sotomayor succintly frames it, “a majority of the voters in Michigan to do what our Constitution forbids.”

Marveling in stunned discomfort this week — trolling through blogs and news sites for some source of comfort or consolation from a sad, sick story that seems as old as time itself; wincing at the insipid promises in online comments that ‘everything will be okay’ or that ‘applications should be based only on achievements’ or ‘Affirmative Action is no longer necessary in our colorblind society’ — the smoky rasp of James Baldwin’s voice sanded my thoughts to a sharper point:

What is it you want me to reconcile myself to? I was born here almost sixty years ago. I’m not going to live another sixty years.

You always told me it takes time. It has taken my father’s time, my mother’s time. My uncle’s time. My brother’s and sister’s time. My niece’s and my nephew’s time.

How much time do you want for your…’progress’?

And in a narrower yet oddly more pressing frame — following as I always do the interchange of ideas on teaching, learning, and our schools on twitter, blogs, mailing lists, and more — it struck me yet again how reflection on these signal historical moments, with few conspicuous exceptions, were very nearly absent from the always-glowing, always-humming, always-pressing exchange among the relatively rosy majority [if you’ll take that term at two levels, one perhaps more pointed than the other] of connected educators exploring brighter futures for pedagogy, school reform, and education policy.

Melinda Anderson and Jose Vilson make the point more elegantly, in my opinion–

— while Tressie McMillan Cottom cuts through to the heart of these matters more effectively than any single statement I’ve seen:


What happened in the Supreme Court chambers this week to ensure the resegregation of Michigan colleges; what continues to happen to our public schools to segregate them more starkly still; and what it took to recognize a racialized ‘conundrum’ in Nevada are national embarassments. And yet, it is somehow more humiliating to me still that many of us have spent our week — myself included — prattling on about a better vision of teaching and learning without any references to these matters — as though our professional practice and student learning were unrelated to the democratic constitution of the schools in which they take.

Please do yourself a favor; please do your students a favor; please do your school a favor; please do your country a favor … and read Justice Sotomayor’s righteous, researched, and respectful dissent in the matter of Schuette v. BAMN et. al. It is one of the few documents released this week of which our country can be proud.

Please share it with your colleagues, share it with your friends, share it with your family, and share it with your students. Recognize, with Justices Sotomayor and Ginsberg, that “this is a history we strive to put behind us. But it is a history that still informs the society we live in, and so it is one we must address with candor.” Please do so — and let’s help each other, to save each other, from ourselves.


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You can follow Chris Thinnes on Twitter at @ChrisThinnes

  • Barbara Bomes

    I’m sharing this.